Closest Thing to Heaven
Is Great Albums by Tears for Fears and the Autumns

Just when I think the year can’t get any better, musically speaking, it does.

We’re past summer now, so the crap should be flowing freely into music stores, and yet most everyone this year (except Wilco) has failed to disappoint. In recent weeks, the worst I’ve managed to say about anyone is that the Finn Brothers wrote some simple songs on Everyone Is Here, but that they were enjoyable simple songs anyway. With every good album that comes out this year, Sturgeon becomes more and more inaccurate – maybe 25 percent of the year’s offerings have been crap thus far. Even Danzig just released his best album in years.

Of course, the pessimistic cynic in me can’t help but weigh the odds against future releases. If a certain percentage of crap is mandatory per year, does that mean the new ones by Elvis Costello and R.E.M. and U2 and the Choir will have to suck to satisfy the odds? What about poor, tortured Elliott Smith? Will his final album, out October 19, be the big disappointment I just know is coming? Or what about Brian Wilson? Will Smile fail to live up to the best-album-ever-in-the-history-of-the-universe hype?

If percentages rule the game, then things keep getting worse for the last quarter of the year – we have two brand-new masterpieces this week, and apologies in advance for those of you who read music reviews for snark and bile. It’s rave-of-the-week time again, but seriously, it’s not my fault that these records are so damn good. It just so happens, incidentally, that both of this week’s contestants are returning after a lengthy absence, further proving that art takes time.

The last Tears for Fears album came out in 1995, but let’s be honest – the last real Tears for Fears album came out in 1989. It was called The Seeds of Love, and at the time, it blew TFF’s sonic possibilities wide open. If there’s anyone reading this that has never heard Tears for Fears, I will be stunned, but just in case – TFF was one of the biggest and best acts of the ‘80s. Their really big hits – “Shout,” “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” “Head Over Heels” – all stemmed from one album, 1985’s amazing Songs From the Big Chair. With that record, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith perfected their brand of thoughtful, melodic pop.

And then they erased it. The Seeds of Love wallowed in bright Beatles pastiches and lengthy soul ballads – it was the full flower, not just the seed, and it was the most artful project ever undertaken by a band whose songs appear on Totally ‘80s! collections. And then they broke up, but Orzabal kept issuing solo records under the Tears for Fears name. It’s not that these albums weren’t good – 1995’s Raoul and the Kings of Spain is particularly excellent, actually – it’s just that they weren’t Tears for Fears. And with the release of Tomcats Screaming Outside, his official solo debut, in 2001, Orzabal had made more albums without Smith than with him. Slowly, people stopped saying the “R” word. The one that rhymes with “fleunion.”

And then came Gary Jules.

Well, actually, then came Richard Kelly with a film called Donnie Darko, an enigmatic swirl of a hazy dream of a movie whose final scenes were scored to a haunting cover of TFF’s “Mad World,” sang by the aforementioned Gary Jules. Suddenly, the song was everywhere. Kids who hadn’t been born when the original version was recorded discovered Tears for Fears thanks to this song, and in one of those weird synchronicities that make life worth living, the time became right for a rhymes-with-fleunion just as Orzabal and Smith were contemplating one.

The result is Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, the first real Tears for Fears album in 15 years, and it’s fan-freaking-tastic. Orzabal and Smith have wisely ignored everything they produced in that decade and change, and made a record that follows directly on the heels of The Seeds of Love. Again, it’s not that I didn’t like Orzabal’s work during that time, it’s just that Tears for Fears were on a journey, and amazingly, they’ve stepped back on the path here as if they never left it.

Happy Ending is a buoyant, Beatlesque treat, bursting out in Technicolor swirlies. The title track hits first, and it’s a multi-part Abbey Road-style suite that throws down a shiny happy gauntlet. It’s like opening with “A Day in the Life,” so surprising and invigorating are the changes and abrupt shifts. Just this one song could have taken years to get right. And hey, look, there are 11 more, and not a one of them suffers from a lack of melody or weight.

When TFF isn’t trying on the Fab Four, they’re opening the ‘70s soul songbook, and the best songs here are the ones in which they combine the two influences. The first single, “Closest Thing to Heaven,” is a great example – it chimes in on a pounding piano and a pure pop verse melody, then lifts off with a syncopated soul rhythm and a falsetto melody worthy of Stevie Wonder. (You know, when he was good.) It’s an intoxicating combo, and it switches back and forth throughout the song, a la Supergrass and their time-melding alchemy.

That’s not to say the pure pop material here isn’t fantastic, ‘cause it is. If there were still a market for instantly likable, effervescent guitar-pop songs on the radio, then “Call Me Mellow” would be a number one single. The Lennon-esque explosion that is “Who Killed Tangerine” is a trip, and the chorus of “Killing With Kindness” is unstoppable. If this album has a weakness, it’s in the more traditional-sounding ballads, but even something as smooth as “Size of Sorrow” is appealing. And “Ladybird” is just awesome.

If, as the title and the artwork suggest, this is the last Tears for Fears album, then they’ve written a sweet goodbye with “Last Days on Earth,” the final track. They’ve also gone out on a high note with this peach of an album, one that reclaims the band name and sends it off in style. Needless to say, Everybody Loves a Happy Ending is one of the best records of the year.

And here’s another one.

I owe Chris L’Etoile, my friend in Canada, for turning me on to the Autumns. Chris and I met in junior high school, and I have always considered our respective music fandom thusly: if I am ahead of the curve, Chris is miles and miles down the road, and has already made some fruitful side trips. His tastes tend towards the dreamy and ambient, so the Autumns were a natural fit for him, and while I’m generally more attracted to intelligent, soaring melody, I love a good echo-drenched dirge, too.

The Autumns are notoriously slow workers – the new self-titled album is only their third full-length in seven years – but each album is a reinvention of their sound. The Angel Pool, their debut, is full of reverb-drowned soundscapes and long, twisting meanders, but lead visionary Matt Kelly has slowly worked the aimlessness out of his system. 2000’s In the Russet Gold of This Vain Hour belied its pretentious title with 10 shorter songs, all of which had sweeping melodies and cleaner arrangements. Along the way, they’ve also released EPs that dabble in interpretation (Covers) and ‘50s pop (Le Carillon), and the greatest slab of thick, glorious noise I have ever heard (Winter in a Silver Box).

Given this penchant for reinvention, self-titling a new album is almost redundant. Suffice it to say that The Autumns sounds like nothing and everything that the band has done before. For starters, it’s their loudest record, which often is a sign of disaster – I can think of very few bands who moved from swirly to crunchy without sacrificing their uniqueness. Kelly has always been in love with the sound of guitars, and here he whips out the distortion and the epic feedback squalls. But unlike many of his contemporaries, he hasn’t forgotten the sweeping ambience and the arching melodies.

What’s amazing about The Autumns is that it shouldn’t hang together. It’s an ambitious melding of styles, with a couple of acoustic pop songs, a few slow-building mantra-songs, two piano-and-strings instrumentals, and a conclusion that is both sea shanty and lullaby. That it’s one of the most cohesive albums of the year, a virtually undifferentiated 50-minute song with moods and moments and crescendos and crashes, is simply extraordinary.

Just listen to the way the loose “Slumberdoll” slides into “Edmund and Edward,” then cascades into “Wish Stars.” Or dig the ever-building shower of tones that is “Deathly Little Dreams,” and marvel at the way the final wash collapses into the ringing “Desole.” This is an album crafted by masters of tone – Kelly and his cohorts know exactly how to lead you from one moment to the next, and they know exactly what kind of grinning, euphoric reaction their arrangements will bring. The Autumns is a perfect example of a band controlling every element of their work to great effect.

And the songs are pretty swell, too. Kelly has a high, glorious voice that at times seems like it’s not even bound to this earth – think Jeff Buckley, of course, but also Jeremy Enigk – and these songs are built around that voice as much as they are the sound of the guitar. Both “Every Sunday Sky” and “Cattleye” charge out of the gate on sweet strummed acoustics and lovely choruses, but it’s on the more dramatic material, like “Hush Plain Girls,” that Kelly shines. This album features more players than any Autumns album before it – there are strings and percussion and pianos galore, but it never sounds busy or fussy.

Hell, this is just a great little record. It shares a trait with most of the great little records of the year, too – it dreams big. The Autumns is a widescreen vista of an album, one that earnestly and unironically reaches for greatness, and achieves it. There’s a certain courage there, a willingness to open one’s heart and mind and lay them out for the soulless hordes to trample, but there’s also a surging sense of the possible. This is music for the hopeful, whether that hope be something as far-reaching as a finer world, or as deceptively simple as 50 great minutes of music. This is the year of the big dreamers, and the Autumns have dreamed with the best of them.

Next week, Elvis Costello times two.

See you in line Tuesday morning.