Jun 24, 2008

mark hollis

Before I review this album I should point out that Mark Hollis was the frontman to Talk Talk. If you’re old enough, that band name may ring a bell and it may even elicit some fond memories. Some history is in order. Talk Talk first struck it big with the song 'Talk Talk' from the album "The Party's Over". Easy to remember. It was a decidedly New Wave / New Romantic affair. I remember liking the song a lot when it came out but it’s a bit fluffy in retrospect. Unfortunately I couldn't find a video of it online.

The band then morphed very subtly. The band lost their keyboardist and gained a new one. Tim Friese-Greene. He was to become a confidante to Hollis and they wrote songs and lyrics together. The band released the "It’s My Life" album. The band still had some very New Wave-y songs but they were becoming a little more mature. Songs like the popular 'It’s My Life' seemed a step up in sophistication. Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and Tears For Fears’ “Shout” came out the same month however and helped keep the band framed as a New Wave band.

Their next album "The Colour of Spring" came out in 1986. And it was a more solid attempt to move away from New Wave and into something that was more their own. Musically I think the important thing that Greene and Hollis did on this album was start using a little more space in their songs. Miles Davis always said what you don’t play is as important as what you do play and left a lot of space between notes in his music. This increased space isn't obvious in the album but it's there. They would expand the use of this technique to a level that would eventually cause them career suicide but critical acclaim. The gem of the album was 'Life's What You Make It'.

Colour did well. Well enough to allow them some leeway in terms of the freedom they could take on their next album. In 1988 Spirit of Eden was released. I wouldn’t listen to this album until 4 years after it came out. I had moved on from New Wave. What I didn’t realize was that Talk Talk had as well. In a major way. Spirit of Eden is unrecognizable to a previous fan of Talk Talk. Completely unrecognizable. Except for Hollis' beautiful voice which suits the music on Eden much more than their previous albums. Obvious melodies and any pop or New Wave influences are completely gone. The transition was similar to the band Japan and the later albums by its lead singer, David Sylvian.

What you have is something incorporating jazz improvisation, ambient influences, some rock, folk maybe, and even classical themes. And it makes use of huge space. It’s a stripped down sound. It is a tough album to like initially. It certainly defies classification although critics would dub it post-rock. I would never have given it a second or third spin had I not read an utterly drooling, raving review in NME along with a fascination with the album cover (sometimes you can judge a book by its cover). But after a few rotations it was constantly on in our lab in grad school. The whole album seems made with the utmost precision and care. Every sound seems thought out. The fingers coming off strings are as impactful as the notes.

The standout track was 'I Believe in You'; a song about heroin addiction. Fake video below.

The band followed up with Laughing Stock which amazingly improved on the sound. In fact it bookends Spirit of Eden well. They are sisters. Even the artwork is similar. The two albums are probably in my top 5. Perhaps even #1 and #2 if I was honest with myself. Both albums surprisingly did okay on the charts even though they are really inaccessible to a pop audience and were probably purchased on the strength of their previous work. They are both exquisite, exquisite pieces of music.

Ascension Day

And unfortunately they represent the end of Talk Talk. At the end Talk Talk was effectively a 2 man band – Hollis and Greene. Hollis went on to form Heligoland and I’ve never been able to score one of his albums. Hollis went on to do one solo album named Mark Hollis.

Mark Hollis is an obvious continuation of Laughing Stock & Spirit of Eden. It is a different piece of work than those two however. It is an even more stripped down piece of work. Take the lyrics for the 5th song
Dream cites freedom
Such suffering
Few certain

And here I lay
The inconsequential sounds of someone leaning into the microphone, a finger scratching over a fret, or a breath almost take center stage here. A harmonica is not so much played as lightly breathed into. As Hollis has said, "Before you play two notes learn how to play one note—and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it."

It is more classical in spots than jazz even though it comes off as less composed. It's more improvisational though. An Ornette Coleman or Evan Parker voice rather than Miles however.

And most importantly Mark Hollis is a beaten down man. The last two Talk Talk albums expressed some hope even though the overall tone was one of sadness. Whereas those albums were more like a small ray of light coming through some storm clouds, this album is all storm clouds.

The one aspect missing for me that leaves this album slightly less wanting than the previous two albums is the mostly absent guitar used in a punctuated manner. This was a critical tool previously. For all the space, the impact of a highly distorted guitar used sparingly added some shock to the system. That isn't here. And to be frank, I miss it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just recently rediscovered Talk Talk and Mark Hollis. Having been a huge fan of the early stuff when it was new I was shocked by the last two albums and stopped listening. Now, twenty years on, I listen Spirt of Eden and Laughing Stock and realize this is some of the most special music ever created. I wish Mr. Hollis would let his musical genius grace us again.