Where art thou?
What happened to Mark Hollis?
“At the point when you finish an album,” Mark Hollis is saying, “the last thing in the world I could think of doing is start writing another one. At the point where you’ve made it, that says what you want to say at that point in time, so it’s not like the next day you can begin another one”.
Anyone whose ears were pruned and re-rooted by the last three Talk Talk albums should make the most of Hollis’s new, self-titled collection of nine songs. It’s been a long time coming – seven years, in fact, since the great white spaces of the fifth (and, it transpires, final) Talk Talk album Laughing Stock – but unquestionably worth the wait. Deceptively simple acoustic surfaces shimmer with all manner of spring-loaded detail, choked and wrenched vocal performances, miniature symphonies of wind instruments, and references to the recording process itself (at times, the creaking of Hollis’s guitar stool is louder than his singing; at others the oral noise from his mouth makes you wonder if he had the mic down his throat). Perhaps as a reaction to the big budget, commercial suicide productions of late Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock – Mark Hollis was recorded with a minimum of flash.
“Yeah, well the thing about that is,” Hollis explains, “everything’s just recorded off this pair of mics at the front, vocally as well. The reason I like the idea of that is, you’ve got the whole geography of sound within which all the instruments exist, but if you listen hard enough, you can actually hear where my head’s moving in position as I’m singing. Because it does exist in a real room space.” SCREEEEAAACHHH….
This was from long ago..
Mark Hollis has spent almost two decades immersed in what seems to have been his desired pastime.
Silence….shhhh…..where is Mark Hollis?
Lets talk Talk Talk
1. Talk Talk
The opening track on the band’s patchy 1982 debut, The Party’s Over, dated back to Mark Hollis’s previous group, the Reaction. It even appeared – titled, rather brilliantly, Talk Talk Talk Talk – on a Beggars Banquet compilation called Streets. The track was strong enough to survive the transition from scratchy post-punk to Hollis’s shiny new venture, for which he recruited fellow north Londoner Simon Brenner on keyboards and two Essex boys, Paul Webb and Lee Harris, on bass and drums.
Back then, Talk Talk were more likely to be compared to Duran Duran than Can, and you can hear why. But Hollis was already hinting at loftier ambitions, name-dropping Anthony Burgess in pop mag interviews, saying “our songs are about human tragedy” and insisting they had no guitarist because “the whole idea is to have a small jazz lineup”. A minor UK hit, and a Top 100 single in the US, Talk Talk is surging, superior synth-pop, its surface fizz – glistening slabs of electro-drama, funky slap bass and modish cries of “hey, hey!” – sparkling over hidden depths. The piano break has the grandeur of early material from the Waterboys, while the lyrics stake out what will become common themes: existential wariness, a mistrust of language and an overpowering sense of outsiderness.
2. It’s My Life
The departure of Brenner and the arrival of Tim-Friese Greene as producer, co-writer, keyboard player, sound-shaper and de facto fourth member in the studio was just one shift than informed Talk Talk’s second album, It’s My Life. The music had thickened and become more stylised, but, although Talk Talk seemed to be a band transitioning between a perky past and a more mature future, they still knew how to deliver a solid-gold pop nugget. Probably best known in the guise of No Doubt’s doggedly faithful 2003 cover – a Top 10 hit in the US, Top 20 in the UK – the title track is a riot of melody, the verse, bridge and chorus as irresistibly hooky as the words are guarded. Love is a losing game and Hollis is second-guessing his moves: “How much do you commit yourself?” While the declamatory chorus has all the hallmarks of celebration, it is decidedly double-edged: “It’s my life/ Don’t you forget/ Caught in the crowd/ It never ends.”
Talk Talk’s first truly epic exercise in melancholy – although Have You Heard the News? was a decent first draft – Renée integrates touches of Roxy Music’s lush grandeur, the Cure’s glowering angst, Simple Minds’ dreamy elegance and Kate Bush’s ECM experiments. Caught between bitterness and affection, Hollis relays the home-town tale of a girl he cares for being played by some local lothario, but really he is encapsulating the pain of lost innocence and the ebbing of youth.
It is a step up in terms of atmosphere and texture, but its real virtue is as a showcase for the ingrained ache in Hollis’s vocals; his is a classically English soul voice, full of pathos, restrained passion and a sense of struggle. The studio recording was the band’s finest moment to date, but the version included on the live album London 1986, recorded at Hammersmith Odeon on 8 May that year, is the most fully realised iteration of the song, musically and emotionally.
4. Living in Another World
The Colour of Spring, released in 1986, was a major breakthrough, commercially and artistically. Gone were the synths and the icy bombast. In their place came big, woody textures, an organic sensibility more obviously suited to Hollis’s evocations of shifting seasons and inner change. The pounding, krautrock-on-the-farm groove of Life Is What You Make It delivered the big hit, but nothing signalled the transition quite as magnificently as Living in Another World, the album’s second single.
A surging, seven-minute tour de force, propelled by Steve Winwood’s organ (there’s a definite whiff of Traffic in the album’s headily pastoral aroma), Morris Pert’s percussion and Mark Feltham’s harmonica, the song is a mile high and rising by the time the key change kickstarts the chorus. Hollis is in characteristically wracked form, singing so hard he seems fit to burst as he digs around his romantic and cosmic alienation: “Better parted … speech gets harder/ There’s no sense in writing.” He might be hankering after wide, open, quiet spaces, but the music thrums with verve and vibrancy.
5. April 5th
Emerging from a steamy concoction of hisses, squeaks and sighs, this fragile ballad contains The Colour of Spring’s title phrase. Personifying the newly arriving spring as a woman – “here she comes, fresh upon the ground” – it is built around a lovely, but ominous, piano figure. Singing at the bottom of his register, Hollis bids farewell to winter and hymns the changing seasons as “a promise that’s nature’s gift”. The gently decaying two-chord outro, a glorious tapestry of glistening piano, tenderly probing saxophone, acoustic guitar and stately organ, finds Hollis tripping over himself in a metaphysical trance – “Let me breathe you” – that recalls Van Morrison at his most transported.
6. It’s Getting Late in the Evening
Alongside the similarly chimeric April 5th and Chameleon Day, the B-side to Life Is What You Make It became a bridge between the more formal structure of The Colour of Spring and the looser, more experimental terrain of Spirit of Eden. While there is still a commitment to conventional song shapes on It’s Getting Late in the Evening, at times the form cracks and the music spreads out like an ink stain; although rooted in a jittery keyboard pulse, simple piano chords and spiky bursts of guitar, the open-ended middle section gestures towards the drifting post-rock soundscapes to come. For once, Hollis sounds anchored, happy, at peace, attuned to the healing power of contentment as the day drops away. “The tide shall turn to shelter us from storm/ The seas of charity shall overflow/ And bathe us all.”
7. The Rainbow
Talk Talk played their last live show in September 1986. Freed from commercial and creative constraints by the success of The Colour of Spring, they spent most of 1987 in Wessex Studios, making improvised music, throwing in elements of jazz, electronica, classical, folk, blues and prog rock, hyper-aware of the power of silence and hypnotic rhythm. The result, released in 1988, was the dense, elliptical Spirit of Eden, a record with a powerful mystique. Engineer Phill Brown, speaking to the Guardian in 2012, recalled “an endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together. Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense.”
Almost heroically uncommercial, the album horrified EMI, which saw its cash cow wandering over the hill to the abattoir. However, in the three decades since, its status as a post-rock landmark has grown. Selecting individual songs from an album designed as a unified, self-contained world seems almost perverse, but opening track The Rainbow is an imperious primer for the album’s signature blend of abrasive noise and intense beauty; silence, space and squall; and tidal shifts in tone and texture. The Rainbow begins as a muzzy fugue, lowing and keening, like a leviathan shaking itself from the depths, before a fierce guitar riff, slack-tuned drums and piercing harmonica pull it into focus. Lyrically, it hinges on a heinous legal injustice, Hollis intent on sounding “the victim’s song”.
8. I Believe in You
In the 1970s, Hollis’s older brother, Ed, worked as a manager-producer-songwriter for Eddie and the Hot Rods. Not only did Ed’s industry contacts prove helpful, but he also co-wrote the band’s first hit, Talk Talk. By the mid-80s, Ed had become entangled in hard drugs, eventually dying from his addictions. I Believe in You, perhaps Talk Talk’s saddest, most straightforwardly beautiful song, is suffused with a personal sense of unutterable waste. “Hear it in my spirit/ I’ve seen heroin for myself,” sings Hollis. “Is it worth so much when you taste it?” Driven by a quietly insistent rhythm, it is the closest Spirit of Eden comes to a conventional song. Released – in unsatisfactorily truncated form – as a single, it even has a chorus, if that is not too mundane a word for Hollis muttering: “Spirit … spirit, how long,” as a celestial noise whirls around him. It was later performed by Bon Iver on their first UK tour.
9. After the Flood
Having parted acrimoniously with EMI and signed to Polydor, who put them on the venerable jazz label Verve, Talk Talk released their final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. It was another six-song meditation, an even deeper immersion in experimental sound than Spirit of Eden, with rougher, bluesier, more confrontational textures. After the Flood – which, hilariously, Polydor attempted to edit into a single – is avant-garde soul music, moving from abrasive post-rock through neo-classical ambience to hymn-like calm, held together by Harris’s rustling drum figure. By now, Hollis’s lyrics had become terse, abstract tone-poems, communicating a hovering dread: “Thirsting/ Within without/ Sighted/ Weeded/ How they run/ Slain in number.” Especially notable for the furious buzz of atonal guitar that runs across the surface of the track like a scar for 80 seconds midway through, After the Flood might be the apotheosis of late period Talk Talk.
10. New Grass
Laughing Stock was the end of the road for the 80s’ most protean of bands, and New Grass explains why. Hollis had one final artistic statement left in him, 1998’s wonderful self-titled solo album, since when he has spent almost two decades immersed in what seems to have been his desired pastime all along: silence.