For a guy who bares his soul regularly on record, Tears For Fears front man Roland Orzabal can be a pretty inscrutable fellow.
Perhaps it's the traditional Englishman's reserve. Or an instinctive wariness of someone who knows how deadly an offhand comment to the press can be.
Whatever the reason, it's a close-to-the-vest quality that makes talking about his latest Tears record, Raoul and the Kings of Spain, a challenging task.
Based simultaneously on an exploration of family bonds and romantic love _ with repeated references to his father's Argentinian and Spanish roots _ Raoul makes some of the most obviously personal statements in Tears For Fears history.
"In a sense, it's about families and how to survive them," says the singer/songwriter/guitarist. "It's that idea of a new generation coming along to make everything better. I'm interested in the comparison between the family I grew up in and the one I have now."
But ask Orzabal about that childhood, a reportedly rough time that only grew easier when he met former Tears partner Curt Smith as a teen, and the words come harder.
"My father was ill, we hardly ever saw him," Orzabal says, groping for words. "It wasn't a normal childhood . . . I'd say we are far more liberal with our children now . . . we relate to them as equals sometimes. I wish that would have happened with me."
In an odd way, it makes sense that someone like Orzabal, who so clearly dislikes talking about himself, would find liberation in writing songs about the stuff he can't put into words.
Following his 1992 breakup with Smith (he was the lighter-than-air vocalist on their biggest hit, Everybody Wants to Rule the World), Orzabal has taken Tears' music in a more complex, personal direction _ eschewing simple pop structures in favor of more densely layered compositions.
The result on Raoul is his most sonically complex outing yet, from the flamenco guitar spices in Sketches of Pain to the myriad of guitar flavors that fill the title track.
And despite the growing complexity of the music, the 34-year-old artist finds himself more at ease in the recording studio than ever.
"In the old days, I had to come up with a lot of things myself . . . kind of like the goose that laid the golden egg," he says. "It was a lot of pressure, and once you brought the songs in, a lot of arguing about how to do things in the studio. Now, working with (co-composer and co-producer) Alan Griffiths, there's no pressure."
Age and experience had an effect on the album's material, too, allowing Orzabal to comfortably address a subject he didn't dare touch before: the love song.
"I didn't feel I could add to the plethora of meaningless pop songs about love . . . until I'd had experience," he says. "Someone like Neil Young, when he writes a love song, you can almost picture the person they're writing about."
Unfortunately, all this complexity may be turning away fans that made past albums like Songs From the Big Chair and The Seeds of Love unqualified successes. While both those records easily broke the 1-million-sold mark, SoundScan figures show 1993's Elemental sold only about 460,000 copies in the United States, with Raoul hovering just over 109,000 sold.
Orzabal admits part of the problem is a lack of interest from MTV and an inability to get radio programers behind one track on the album.
"There's such a fashion to derisive and cynical lyrics, that if you're trying to make a real statement, it's like pushing a rock up a hill," he says.
Still, Orzabal says Tears For Fears continues to have an impact in America _ an assessment supported by the fans who come to shows every night.
"There's something about the (United) States . . . I always underestimate my fan base there," he says. "When you see people mouthing the words to songs on an album that hasn't been out for very long, you kind of think, "Yeah! They're getting it.' "
At a glance
Tears For Fears performs tonight at 8 at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. Tickets are $20. Call 229-7827.