When last we left Tears for Fears, the boys (Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith) had kissed and made up for a strong return to form with 2004's Everybody Loves a Happy Ending (which is part of this post).
The post-script was Smith's solo effort Halfway, Pleased. I was not really sure what to expect with this album. TFF was Smith and Orzabal's band, but the songs were primarily written by Orzabal; his main co-writer on Songs from the Big Chair was actually keyboardist Ian Stanley. This album is all Smith and co-writer Charlton Pettus (who also wrote with Smith and Orzabal on ELAHE).
Given that, I decided this album deserved the full workout, as described here. First listen: on the commuter rail. I went old school with my CD Walkman. My first impression was actually the CD artwork -- normally this is not a conscious factor (in fact, almost never), but it did strike me in this case. The artwork is simple: photos over white, with black italicized "wedding-type" font. (I'm sure it could be described more articulately than that, but that's all the cultcha I got.) The front picture (included above) is from behind, with Smith and his daughters. My immediate thoughts and impression are: a reflective, mature, sedate album. It may even be a kids' album, for all I know.
First song ("Perfect Day"), first verse: light, poppy, tuneful; Smith has a crooner's sensibility in his vocals and it sounds like I expected. Nice, safe, not terribly edgy; a little slower and more laid back than I thought. It's a song about a perfect day -- well told, but a traveled path. Dandelions. Sunshine. Puppies. No global warming. An economy not in total freefall. Then we hit the chorus. "It's a perfect day/to blow myself away."
I rewind to make sure I heard that right. Yup, that's exactly what he said. This was the listening equivalent of sizing your opponent up in a boxing ring and getting sucker-punched in the back of the head by a previously unannounced third combatant. And right there, I knew this was not going to be what I expected. I wanted to see if this was just my reaction, so I tried the song out on Scott, without telling him what was up. Without prompting, he did the same double-take I did, and said, "What did he just say?" Yup, that's exactly what he said.
This album, throughout, mixes a child-like wonder with experienced cynicism. Smith deceptively combines gut-punch twists on children's nursery rhymes alternating with the aged wisdom of a one-legged sailor. And all with classic, pitch-perfect delivery on top of absolutely beautiful music. To make "low-key and sparse" work (at least in my book) is a tightrope-thin line between genius and inane. I generally don't like low-key at all, actually, but I just cannot deny this album. It's great.
Not only that, but it actually works in the car, even at low tempo. It defies logic AND my own personal opinion that car albums need to be at least mid-tempo. On the big stereo it sounds gorgeous. Absolutely great low-key pop -- Curt's superb voice with meticulously placed instrumentation. It's fabulous.
Merch Rating: We're slightly re-defining the Merch rating, starting with this album. At this point I'm collecting my favorite albums on vinyl when I can find them. Yes, I'm buying this on vinyl, assuming an album version was created. It's that good. Were I in LA in March on a Wednesday, there is NO DOUBT I'd be going to The Cactus Lounge to see him play. He is playing there for free. FREE. If you are there and not going, you are out of your mind. I hear that reservations are strongly recommended as the lounge books up quickly, which is not surprising given the price. FREE. Anyways, I'd definitely buy a T-shirt, vinyl (clearly), and any extras from this album. I'd buy his older solo stuff as well if he had it there. Hell, I'd pretty much buy anything at the merch table as he was playing for free, and probably even if he wasn't. Hopefully he'll be in Boston soon; if not, I'll just go to his website and buy some stuff there.
CD Placement Rating: You want to guess? Car CD Changer.