Mental illness and pop music are hardly strangers, but few bands made it as central to their work as Tears For Fears, named after a concept minted by experimental psychiatrist Arthur Janov, whose ideas ripple and echo throughout the group’s first two records. Tears For Fears were an unusually earnest band, and suffered for it critically, but their self-seriousness has worn well.

From another group the lyric of “Mad World” might land as just another glib dig at the squares; Curt Smith, though, sounds honestly perturbed. Madness, for TFF, is the primal topic – their songs are often an account of working through their own neuroses and buried pain. But that childhood pain isn’t unique to sensitive young synthpoppers – it infects the whole of society, contorting it into patterns of repression, routine and self-denial. Mad world isn’t just a description; it’s a diagnosis.

The key to the original “Mad World” musically is its shifts in pace – the sudden urgency on the chorus as Smith tries to push against the world; the fall back into torpor and contemplation. Like most Tears For Fears songs, it’s dynamic as well as catchy – the secret of the band’s later success, for me, isn’t their intelligence or their misery but the way Roland Orzabal’s ear for the thrill of pop as music made their songs about therapy into something actually cathartic. The point of therapy is to change yourself, not just understand yourself, and Tears For Fears’ music was never inert.

Can the same be said of “Mad World”, as interpreted by Gary Jules (and pianist Michael Andrews)? Jules’ version goes down a route which will become very familiar to pop listeners – and anyone who’s sat through an ad break in the last 15 years – he slows the song down, and delivers it in a tremulous, sorrowful voice, to the accompaniment of a gently tinkling piano.

In its original context – as part of the soundtrack to cult movie Donnie Darko – this might have been effective: I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say. But that’s not exactly the context of its arrival at No.1. “Mad World” reached the top at Christmas, as part of a ‘chart battle’ with do-they-mean-it hard rock revivalists The Darkness and their “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)”.

As chart battles go, this is one of the less edifying. The Darkness presented themselves as heirs to Slade, a nudge-wink update of the classic glam rockin’ Christmas number ones, with enough plausible deniability to catch the ironic listener too. “Mad World” – just as heavily promoted – represented the alternative, an underdog antidote to tinsel tomfoolery. It’s the godfather of all “get this unlikely thing to number one” social media campaigns.

In this contest of “kind of funny” vs “kind of sad”, I resentfully backed The Darkness – it was a smirking caricature of Christmas rock, but it was sprightly and catchy. And – more to the point – the Gary Jules track sounded equally smug and caricatured to me, a mawkish pantomime of seriousness.

Jules’ “Mad World” wrecks the song for me. Usually with bad cover versions of good songs, something worthwhile can poke through – even if it just reminds you of what you’re missing. That barely applies here. Jules flattens the song – his singing throughout is a barely expressive whimper, and he kills the dynamic shifts which make the original exciting. It brings the music into closer alignment with the lyric – but in doing so it breaks a lot of the interest and tension in the record. For me, it also shifts the emphasis in the song away from the “world” and onto the “I” of the song, who stands revealed as, well, a bit of a whingebag.

It worked, though – The Darkness’ novelty rock missed out, and Sad Gary topped the Christmas chart. Last year on the Twitter polls I run we did cover versions, and “Mad World” did OK (though I was gratified by how many people dislike it as much as I do). The poll was a good opportunity to think about what a good cover version does, and one of the things I realised when I ask that question is that it’s quite hard to come up with criteria which exclude Gary, much though I’d like to. His version is distinctive. It recasts the song in a new style and brings out something different in it. It’s a proper reinterpretation, not just a crappy xerox. It does something new.

And yet the new thing it does is corny and pointless. Anything will acquire more gravitas if you slow it down a bit and slice an onion in the vocal booth, but most of the time it’s a really cheap, thoughtless kind of gravitas which almost always makes songs less interesting (to say nothing of far less entertaining). “Mad World” showed that this one weird trick might actually work, and even if it wasn’t cynical itself, it opened the doors to a lot of cynicism to follow.

Score: 3

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