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