Almost every hit song by Tears for Fears shows a world full of strife. Shout shows us the anger and the need to “Let it all out.” Everybody Wants to Rule the World shows us the importance of finding that place where the world won’t find you. Sowing the Seeds of Love shows us the transformative property of love. I can go on with songs like Change, Break it Down Again, Women in Chains. Head Over Heels is the exception to the rule, as that’s just a fun, lovey-dovey pop song. Regardless, It’s obvious that Tears For Fears cares about the state of the world, and recognizing our strife. Tears For Fears’ first big hit, Mad World, epitomizes the empathy Tears for Fears gives their listeners.
Twenty years later, Gary Jules and Michael Andrews rewrote Mad World for the film Donnie Darko. Later, Seal sang Mad World for The Passion of New Orleans project. And just a few weeks ago, Pentatonix sang a new version of Mad World as an act of empathy for the world we currently live in. Covers of Mad World have also been recorded by Susan Boyle, Gregorian, 8 Bit Arcade, the cast of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, and several others.
Of all these covers of Mad World, is there one that rises above the original Tears For Fears Version? Join me as we examine the original version of Mad World and four other versions. This is Cover Vs Original: Mad World.
Original: Tears For Fears (1982)
I said before, Mad World was the first big single for Tears For Fears. A new wave standard, inspired by Duran Duran, Mad World tells the story of people going about their lives with no real direction. In Mad World, people are not encouraged to chase their dreams, but rather just follow society’s lessons. Children only feel good on their birthdays. Society lives and dies with no thought to the direction of their lives. Arguably, the chorus delivers the saddest line in any Tears For Fears song: “I find it kind of funny, I find it kind of sad. The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” That’s the kind of line that makes you want to rip your heart out of your chest because it hurts so much to hear.
Musically, Mad World starts with a slow tempo and a minor key. The chorus has an interesting drumbeat, care of Chris Hugh (of Adam and the Ants). This beat helps set a tempo of the chorus, which sounds manic and frightening. We get the feeling the singer wants to run away but has nowhere to run. Sidenote: we have to wonder, given the thesis of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, if perhaps the latter song was written in response to Mad World’s lack of shelter.
Essentially, Mad World is an emo song with a new w
Cover: Gary Jules & Micheal Andrews (2001)
In 2001, Donnie Darko blew our minds. We’re still arguing about the ending. Was it all a dream? Was it time travel? Regardless, that last scene just breaks the heart of anyone unless they have a heart made of steel. To add to this scene, we hear the Gary Jules (& Micheal Andrews) version of Mad World playing as they roll out Donnie’s body. Heartbreaking.
The Gary Jules cover of Mad World strays quite a bit from the original. For one, the tempo is significantly slower. Gary Jules reimagines the song to a minimalistic ballad. Gone are the synthesizers; there’s just a bare piano and a vocal. Maybe a few effects here and there, but nothing too fancy. The result is beautiful, and captures our hearts, and shows the spirit of Mad World better than the original.
Mad World by Gary Jules. Best. Cover. Ever.
Cover: Seal (2016)
Seal’s cover of Mad World for the Passion of New Orleans project also presents Mad World as a Ballad. However, while Jules cover stuck with a minimalistic attitude, that’s where the similarities end. Starting with a fleshed-out string section, Seal’s Mad World progresses with a full orchestra. Compare this to the piano in the Jules / Andrews cover of Mad World. The approach to accompaniment is totally opposite.
One special feature Seal adds to Mad World comes in the second verse. A simple key change upwards, along with a few thundering drums, makes us feel the emotions of the children waiting for their birthdays. A second key change during the last chorus drives the point home. We feel how mad of a world it really is as a choir sings along with Seal’s high tenor vocals.
Seal transforms Mad World into a pathos heavy song that makes us cry, hope, dream, and despair.
Cover: John Clarence Stewart (2020)
In the musical series Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, we get to a point in the plot where one of the characters (played by John Clarent Stewart) realizes his marriage is over. While certainly sad, this scene must compete with numerous other sad scenes throughout the episode, and throughout the series. Despite the completion, and despite our “sadness fatigue,” the emotion portrayed in Stewart’s floods the viewer with emotion.
Stewart starts the song acapella. A light piano joins the song after a few bars. There are a few strings towards the end, but for the most part, it’s a pretty simple song. What separates Stewart’s version from Jules’s version, Stewart shortens the song. We don’t get the second verse, and thus we don’t get the picture of the kids waiting for birthdays. By cutting this anticipation, Stewart cuts out the little hope that Mad World presents. The people who live in this universe’s mad world have nothing to look forward to. These people barely live, and then they die.
While both Seal and Gary Jules reimagine the song as a ballad, Stewart’s portrayal makes us realize Mad World is more than just a sad ballad, it’s a dirge.
Cover: Pentatonix (2020)
Acapella group Pentatonix recently released their take cover of Mad World. Like most covers of Mad World, Pentatonix presents the song as a ballad. Presumably, Pentatonix chose Mad World to describe the state of the world we currently live in.
The harmonies of Pentatonix’s Mad World are polished and tight; this is what separates the Pentatonix version of Mad World from the others. This also, in my opinion, is the fatal flaw of the song. While the Pentatonix version of Mad World sounds pretty and organized, the song needs a bit of chaos. We lose the emotion we felt with the other versions. I applaud the effort, and again, this cover of Mad World sounds pretty. However, this version of Mad World needs work. Can you do a second version, guys?
Of all the covers of Mad World, is there one that stands out?
I’ve pretty much answered this already by statement “best. cover. ever.” Yes, the Gary Jules & Michael Andrews version shows us the beauty and the sadness of Mad World. More than Seal, and even more than the original Tears For Fears version. There’s really not much else to say. Again, Best. Cover. Ever. Ok, maybe Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along the Watchtower deserves that title, but Jules and Andrews certainly get the number two slot.
We all just sat through five depressing covers of Mad World. For your own mental health, go do something fun, preferably with someone you love. It truly is a mad world. 2020 has proven how mad the world can get. However, we have each other. That’s a hope no one can take from us.