The quintessential eighties band, I have to confess I've never had a lot of time for Tears For Fears. From their Janov inspired name to their Janov inspired lyrics, Curt Smith and Roland Orzabal trod a line that sought to combine the intense, black raincoat angst of the contemporary 'indie' scene with the equally contemporary, chart friendly new romantic synth pop ethos. The tension between the two poles meant it rarely worked to any degree of satisfaction with 'Mad World' a case in point - an arm swinging chorus tempered by a wincing "The dreams in which I'm dying are the best I've ever had" lyric that gave it the feel of a Duran Duran with a HND in psychology.
For the present Michael Andrews and Gary Jules version, the synthpop is exorcised in favour of a set of lone piano chords that strip down/slow down 'Mad World' into a spaced out ballad. And in taking it at a slower pace, Jules' vocal finds a level of emotion in the lyric that flatters its pretension. That "The dreams in which I'm dying" line is still there, but it's given a relevant slant courtesy of the context of this cover version - Andrews and Jules' 'Mad World' is from the soundtrack to that year's 'Donnie Darko', a film all about dreams and dying. So no harm done. Or at least, not as much; 'Mad World' here has an atmosphere of emptiness that's curiously affecting with more than a hint of desperation; 'Donnie Darko' aside, 'Mad World' would be equally appropriate to soundtrack black and white footage of Nazi concentration camps, and as such it makes for a curious Christmas number one that taps into whatever you regard as the polar opposite reaction to the time of year than the one Noddy Holder had. I just never knew that so many other people felt that way too.