Spirit of Eden
IN THIS PHOTO: Mark Hollis/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Remembering Talk Talk’s Brilliant Genius Mark Hollis
MANY are in a state of disbelief that...
IMAGE CREDIT: Spotify
Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis has died aged sixty-four. The news broke late yesterday and social media has been filled with sad messages and posts that talk about Hollis and his amazing work. Many are saying the same thing: there was nobody like him and nobody expected this to happen. The details regarding the exact cause of death are unclear but big names and the public alike are taking to social media to leave their condolences and memories of Hollis. Songs like Life’s What You Make It (from The Colour of Spring) were part of my childhood as were tracks such as It’s My Life (from the album of the same name). I was shocked to hear the news come through: it is always tragic when an iconic musician dies so young. My real exposure to Talk Talk and Hollis came fairly late in life. I know Elbow’s Guy Garvey is a huge fan and his personal favourite album is the band’s key album, Sprit of Eden. By 1988, Hollis was taking in more Jazz influences – people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were making more of a mark on Talk Talk than ever before. With more spiritual and religious lyrics, this was the least accessible album from the band but that did not alienate fans and critics. Reviews were extremely positive and, in this extensive review, Pitchfork expended some passionate words:
““I like sound. And I also like silence. And, in some ways, I like silence more than I like sound.” It’s another Hollis zinger, but never was there a sentiment so apt for the man. Like a mute slowly placed into the bell of a trumpet, Talk Talk’s final albums gradually pulled focus away from the sound of pop music near the end of the century. Over here, in this pasture, was an untilled field of possibility to use with just some guitars and drums and bass. Spirit of Eden was the great inhale of religious feeling, one rock and pop music had been expelling for years and years. The thrill and stasis of a held breath carry the album from beginning to end. “Take my freedom,” Hollis sings on the closing hymn, as the band uses its last bit of thrust before drifting away”.
The Guardian reported news of Hollis’ death yesterday and (looked at) who is paying tribute to him:
“With Hollis as its singer and creative mastermind, the group made a name with 1980s hit singles such as It’s My Life, Today, Talk Talk and Life’s What You Make It. They progressed to albums like Spirit of Eden, which was hailed as a “masterpiece”, and Laughing Stock.
His cousin-in-law Anthony Costello tweeted on Monday: “RIP Mark Hollis. Cousin-in-law. Wonderful husband and father. Fascinating and principled man. Retired from the music business 20 years ago but an indefinable musical icon.”
Talk Talk’s bassist Mark Webb, aka Rustin Man, paid tribute to Hollis on Instagram. “I am very shocked and saddened to hear the news of the passing of Mark Hollis,” he wrote. “Musically he was a genius and it was a honour and a privilege to have been in a band with him. I have not seen Mark for many years, but like many musicians of our generation I have been profoundly influenced by his trailblazing musical ideas.”
Hollis’ influence has often been referenced by musicians, including Elbow’s Guy Garvey. “Mark Hollis started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability,” he told Mojo. “To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings for me.” Bands including Broken Social Scene, The The, Doves and Mansun have all paid tribute on Twitter”.
It is hard to put together an ultimate Mark Hollis playlist – I have attempted to at the end of this piece – as there are so many great songs in the catalogue. Everyone will have their own favourite songs from Talk Talk and that one album they gravitate towards. Many love the finale, Laughing Stock, which saw the then-three-piece of Mark Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb produce something spectacular. That record, released in 1991, featured more Art-Rock and shifted from their earlier Synthpop sound. Although every Talk Talk album is fantastic, most people feel Spirit of Eden and The Colour of Spring are the ultimate works. I love The Colour of Spring because it features the amazing Life’s What You Make It and the songwriting, in my view, is more accessible and memorable. I love how they developed from their first two albums and created more ambitious arrangements and textures. Whilst many argue The Colour of Spring is less accomplished and ambitious as Spirit of Eden, I love every song on The Colour of Spring and what it does to you. AllMusic, in this review perfectly assessed the album:
“With It's My Life, Talk Talk proved that they could pull off an entire album of strong material. With The Colour of Spring, they took it one step further, moving to a near-concept song cycle, following the emotional ups and downs of relationships and pondering life in general. Musically, they built on the experimental direction of the previous album with interesting rhythms, sweeping orchestration, complex arrangements, and even a children's chorus to create an evocative, hypnotic groove. Though the songs were catchier on the earlier efforts and the ambient experimentation was more fully achieved later on, The Colour of Spring succeeded in marrying the two ideas into one unique sound for their most thoroughly satisfying album”.
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Talk Talk broke up in 1991 but Mark Hollis did release his own solo eponymous album in 1998. Hollis was inspired by Classical music of the twentieth-century (rather than contemporary music) and fusing that with elements of Jazz from the 1950s and 1960s. Hollis recorded the album in a way that meant it could not be played live; he did not want to do so and it was a record very much to be listened to rather than heard on the stage. That did not put off critics who noted that, even without his band, Hollis was creating these gorgeous textures and exquisite songs. The tracks mixed between the beautiful and the stark; an arresting blend that uses moments of silence to incredible effect – the entire ensemble is fantastic. Many critics hoped it would not take Hollis seven years to produce another album and, given news of his death, it is sad we will not see another album from him. Mark Hollis’ solo album was darker than the Talk Talk material but hinted at a new and intriguing direction. The reason why Mark Hollis and Talk Talk made such an impact on my child mind is the unique sound and the unmistakable vocals. I had never heard a singer like Hollis and it was so different to anything around in the mid/late-1980s. It is so sad we will not hear another Hollis-led song but many, myself included, will revisit the album and realise why Hollis is regarded as one of the greatest voices who has ever lived.
Everyone has their own impression of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis’ genius but, for so many musicians, the music represented something uplifting, different and truly affirming. You cannot listen to a Talk Talk song without feeling moved and affected! Every track from them gets into the bones and elicits some kind of emotional response. Doves’ Jimi Goodwin, in an extract of Spirit of Talk Talk spoke about the band’s magic and what they meant to him:
“I remember seeing them on The Tube, Channel 4's amazing live music programme, later that summer, and that further cemented the idea that this band was special. Mark Hollis, chief writer, bass player Paul Webb, and drummer Lee Harris were on fire that day!
IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images
Fast forward to 1991 and to Doves (or Sub Sub as we were then). We were still in the grip of dance music when Talk Talk's next release Spirit of Eden came out. Andy Williams was the first to buy it and we would come in from clubbing somewhere in the wee smalls and put this record on. Probably the only so-called rock record at the time that we would listen to.
There is some good stuff out there about Talk Talk, some great footage of them performing on the web. I can't really describe this music. Others have managed in words what I can only feel. Okay, I'll try. Put simply, this music was, and still is, life-affirming. To me it's like going to church. Shit, I feel I'm doing this band a disservice. I know what it's like to be written about by someone who hasn't a clue! But I do love them, so sorry, strike me down...
Mark has always been very secretive and I think he is now retired from music, which as a fan is really sad - but I'm sure he's not sad! There isn't enough mystery around bands any more and the enigma of Talk Talk and Mark Hollis suits me just fine”.
I have stated how The Colour of Spring is my favourite Talk Talk album but I think Spirit of Eden will last longer (also check out The Party’s Over that, whilst not as strong as their other albums, has some great songs on it). It seemed ahead of its time in 1988 and still sounds radical in 2019. I do wonder whether music is too safe and whether artists are taking few risks. Listen to the best Mark Hollis/Talk Talk work and it seems to inhabit its own world. Hollis was a restless and perfectionist songwriter who wanted the music to sounds like nothing else; to have this otherworldly quality that was different to anything out there. You cannot easily compare another band to Talk Talk: there are no songwriters and singers like Mark Hollis. Before wrapping up, I wanted to talk about Spirit of Eden and why it is such a bold and stunning album. In a piece last year, Popmatters looked at the songs on the record and examined their beauty and unique angles. The album was, as they explained, a commercial risk:
“When Spirit of Eden was released on September 16, 1988, it was considered commercial suicide. The lyrics too obscure, the instrumentation too odd, the tempos too slow, the vocals too soft for the tastes of the majority of music listeners in 1988. This was not Mark Hollis' concern. He was no longer interested in releasing music with any commercial potential whatsoever. His was a more ambitious concern: creating an album that would encompass genres, heal the listener's wounds, and transcend its time. Spirit of Eden masterfully accomplishes all three of Mark Hollis' goals...
At the age of 33 (the same age as Blind Willie Johnson when he finished recording his 30 timeless spiritual blues songs), Mark Hollis completed Spirit of Eden, a cycle of music that was equally spiritual and timeless. Spirit of Eden is similar to Van Morrison's Astral Weeks in its method of surrounding a poetic singer-songwriter with genre-defying guest musicians who embark on exploratory improvisations. Spirit of Eden influenced and inspired the three most experimental and innovative albums of the 1990s: Lazer Guided Melodies (Spiritualized), A Storm in Heaven (Verve), and Hex (Bark Psychosis). All three albums followed its patterns of dynamic intensity, free jazz improvisations, and spaces of silence.
Spirit of Eden is still as stunning and sublime in 2018 as it was in 1988”.
One of the results of Mark Hollis’ death – sadly or pleasantly - will be a new generation experiencing his music for the first time. It is always great when a legendary band such as Talk Talk find new audiences so I think any new attention is a good thing. The news we all heard yesterday came out of the blue so the exact details and circumstances of Hollis’ death are not yet clear. What is clear is the impact he made on so many lives and how, for generations to come, his staggering and genius vision will continue and compel. It is sad we have to say goodbye to a music legend who, for a brief period, transformed music and brought this wonderful voice to the world. Whilst his death is tragic and incredibly unexpected, many people will be discovering Mark Hollis’ music for the first time and it will stay in their memory forever. In a world of familiar and unspectacular artists, Mark Hollis was truly…
IN THIS PHOTO: Talk Talk/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images/Press
A light in the dark.