COLOURS OF EDEN

A breeze skating a frozen pond. 

A face that doesn’t match its name. 

Wonder and anguish entwined.

The task of capturing the elusive, strangled beauty of Talk Talk.

I could try to net these butterfly phrases, compile them, pin them, offer them to you in a month or two as a display-board eulogy for Mark Hollis.

But it would be a waste of time.

Rarely has that silly aphorism seemed so apt: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

If the music of Talk Talk was a building, it would be one designed by Hundertwasser for a planet with different gravity.

The first two albums, The Party’s Over (1982) and It’s My Life (1984) present a melodic synth pop, replete with strong vocals and sing-along hooks. Some of the catchy bits found their way into singles which pushed into the charts without ever troubling the upper echelons. And if careful listeners noted that the second LP was a bit more downbeat, a little more melancholic sounding than the debut, well no-one said anything in the year of Sade and Footloose. Madonna was a Virgin, the Boss was Born in the USA and anyway, synth-pop was on the way out.

But modest success is still success, and Talk Talk, indulged by EMI in a way that seems extraordinary nowadays, managed to entirely exclude the record company from the studio while importing session musos (including Steve Winwood) to give life to the vision shared by Hollis and producer/musician Tim Friese-Greene. And so, over a period of months, they constructed the first of two consecutive masterpieces.

Masterpieces? Two masterpieces? Regular readers will know that we rarely fling around superlatives at Vinyl Connection. But in our sometime series “101 More Albums You Must To Hear And Should Probably Own”, Talk Talk have two entries.

The first is 1986’s The Colours of Spring, which sold 2 million copies thanks in no small part to the single EMI cajoled them into including, “Life’s What You Make It”. It is so much less poppy than its predecessors that without the increasingly strained tones of Hollis’ voice you might not even think it was the same outfit. And of course, it isn’t. Two foundations members had gone, and Friese-Greene had mind-melded with Mark Hollis to create a world of pained beauty and indistinct yearning. In a 1997 interview with Jim Irvin, Hollis spoke about his enjoyment of Bartók, Delius, and Miles Davis work with Gil Evans. Esoteric, perhaps, yet there is still muscle on the bone here. This is indisputably a rock band, just one challenging itself to go somewhere new, to move forward, to progress.

If Talk Talk have passed you by until now, The Colours of Spring is the place to join the conversation. There are no weak songs, nor anything thoughtless or offhand. Orchestrations are big because the music is big, the children’s choir is small because children are small. Colours is full of light and shade, subtlety and passion. And, as embodied in the striking cover art of James Marsh, there is a spray of strangeness.

Naturally the band toured the successful new album, but this was not a process Mark Hollis enjoyed. In fact, Hollis decided to do a Beatles and migrate Talk Talk to a studio-only existence. That wasn’t the only momentous decision Hollis made. He was determined, in his next work, to remove all traces of pop music entirely.

So Hollis and Friese-Greene adjourned to Wessex Studios—a converted church in North London—where they dimmed the lights and hid from the sun, crafting hours upon hours of tape fragments into delicate structures heavy with gossamer and masked with candlelight.

The pair was convinced this album would prove even more popular than Colours. In fact, it bemused listeners with its austere complexity and absence of hits. Yet with the superior clarity of hindsight it is abundantly clear that with Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk laid the groundwork for post-rock. Substituting organic instruments for electronics, unhooking from hooks, an intense impressionism, the almost architectural placement of sound…Spirit of Eden whispers in your ear of fall and redemption in such human, flawed terms that even an unbeliever will be touched. 

The word became sound, the designer was Mark Hollis.

Vale.

In memory of Mark Hollis, 4 January 1955—25 February 2019

*

NOTES

Irvin, Jim. “Paradise Lost” in Mojo: The Music Magazine (#148, March 2006)

James Marsh Spirit of Eden artwork courtesy of Hypergallery.

An earlier Vinyl Connection piece on the 1998 solo album by Mark Hollis is here.

 

27 comments

  1. For me, Hollis’ work stands as some of the best of the 1980s.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark Hollis was a truly mercurial character, you did not mention Laughing Stock, though it is every bit as good as Spirit of Eden.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed on both counts.

      Like

  3. pinklightsabre · · Reply

    Yes, yes, yes. Lush. Playlist tribute from my dear friend here: https://open.spotify.com/user/aml42000/playlist/4HAqgVTdLN0UVclNPy0xkz?si=lDJ4zj4RRhaYGzvleFvRzQ

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yeah I’d put Laughing Stock in the masterpiece category too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No disagreement here, other than a concern that listing (let alone writing about) three ‘masterpieces’ in one post seemed an embarrassment of riches.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. There are four acts that I’ve covered so far on my blog so far where I’ve given three consecutive studio albums at least 9/10. They are:
        The Beatles: Rubber Soul -> Magical Mystery Tour (which is actually four…)
        Nick Drake: his three studio albums
        Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited -> John Wesley Harding
        Talk Talk: The Colour of Spring -> Laughing Stock

        Not sure if anyone else will ever make it, but Hollis is in good company.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Excellent company indeed.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I was just thinking of ‘Spirit of Eden’ but I don’t know why. Maybe because I was listening to ‘Kid A’ and it got me into that non-rock rock mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Spirit of E tends to be my ‘go to’ Talk Talk, but not because I find Laughing Stock any lesser. Maybe it’s just habit!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You know when the teacher who never yells finally yells at the class? Students quickly pay attention. You know when writers who rarely use the term masterpiece use it twice in describing an artist? Readers/Students quickly pay attention & add it to their ‘must hear’ list
    Nice tribute Bruce

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Can’t say I’m picturing you as a yeller, Geoff. Oh, you mean those other teachers? Right. 🙂
      Glad something hooked you, none-the-less!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m enjoying your posts, and this was nicely done, a persuasive tribute – I agree with Stephen’s comment above, onto the “must hear” list. Even though I’ve been sampling ’80’s music, I’d only ever heard “It’s My Life” and that eponymous tune (I’m gong to just keep using that word, until I remember how it’s spelled.) A very appealing voice, despite a certain, as you say, strangled or indistinct quality to it, and now you’ve prompted me to listen to his non-pop work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A sense of what the music offers (here, using poetic-ish images rather than musical language) is the goal. So I’m delighted that something persuaded you Robert. And I’m grateful for the feedback too.
      Cheers, Bruce.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I think that those last three albums are something extraordinary, Hollis left music at exactly the right time with four albums that are peerless, His solo album is standalone too. There are the records I cannot write about very well that you do so well Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Neil. In a way I was trying to match the words to the music; kind of impressionistic, fresh yet somehow indistinct. I’ve also really enjoyed reading others connections to Hollis’ music.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The Colour of Spring is really pretty wonderful. My introduction to Talk Talk and the album I wanted to listen to when I learned of Hollis’ passing. It was actually through reading your piece about Hollis’ solo album that I found myself immersed in his sounds. So, thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s enormously rare to have a catalogue that progresses through so many phases, and where each album is unique. One of my favourites is German band Agitation Free, whose three original albums are entirely individual. Also, I think one can argue a case for Steely Dan and perhaps XTC. But it’s a small and special club, that’s for sure.
      But back to Talk Talk… moving, powerful music for a sad occasion.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Wonderful stuff Bruce. I was decidedly bummed out by his passing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Like Aphoristical you have sent me on a listening jag. always like Hollis and this band.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’d somehow missed the news of Hollis’ passing. The Colour of Spring was on frequent rotation during my medical school years, with I Don’t Believe In You a particular favorite. Hollis’ voice was one of the more distinctive voices of the era (both literally and figuratively).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed.
      Must say, I’m feeling a bit flat about all these obituaries. When will I find time to try out my idea of writing ‘love letters’ to living artists?

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Steven Newstead · · Reply

    Ryland just told me the news about Mark Hollis. Comforting to come to the blog and read your piece and the glowing appreciation expressed in the comments. Well done everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I got some enjoyable Talk Talk in before changing tack to A Love Supreme for a walk through a forest.
    A double Spirit of Eden?
    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Double dose of spirits indeed. Hope it lifted yours.

      Like

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