Talk Talk
Josh Gray selects the releases that anyone looking to explore the work of the late genius should discover...

It’s now been two days since the death of Mark Hollis, singer and core songwriter for long-defunct group Talk Talk, was first reported.

Yet the following day’s coverage was marked by uncertainty as to the validity of this fact. News outlets relied on ‘reports’ and ‘rumours’ of his demise for an unusually long length of time, until finally an official source (his old manager) surfaced to confirm the reports yesterday. This is partly, it appears, because the reclusive Hollis remained the only real official Talk Talk source throughout his later years, and he remained silent. 

This seems to me a fitting end for a peculiarly private kind of genius, a popstar who began shunning the spotlight from the moment it first hit him. It’s now been over 20 years since anyone has heard a note of new music from Hollis (the last was some sparse piano on ‘Chaos’ from UNKLE’S ‘Psyence Fiction’, which he requested remain uncredited). His self-imposed retirement seemed to stem from the fact that he truly believed that he could not better the artistic statement he had made on his final few records, each a remarkable piece of work that seemed to take a great deal out of Hollis in their creation. 

These latter works, critically dismissed upon release as pretentious and self-indulgent, have since revealed themselves to be hugely ahead of their time, and have recently begun reasserting themselves in the public consciousness thanks, in part, to the praise heaped upon them by the various experimentally-minded acts they inspired (Elbow, These New Puritans, Perfume Genius etc.)

There are still people, however, to whom the words Talk Talk mean mobile phones and crap WiFi, and others whose only connection to one of history’s most groundbreaking bands is No Doubt’s cover of ‘It’s My Life’ and dim recollections of being freaked out by the woman with lips for eyes on their debut album’s cover when they first browsed their parents’ record collection.

So, if you’ve seen a few people on your timeline mourning the passing of Mark Hollis as though David Bowie and Prince had died all over again and wondered exactly what exactly this man did to merit such grief, I thoroughly recommend joining me now on what could be one of the more ear-opening journeys of your life so far.

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Talk Talk - ‘Spirit Of Eden’ (1988)

Don’t worry if you haven’t listened to Talk Talk before. Don’t worry if you hate 80s music. Don’t worry if you’re a microscopic being without proper aural receptors with a lifespan lasting less than an hour. Just find a good pair of headphones and enjoy diving into this absolute masterpiece of a record.

Some call this the first post-rock album and, in a sense, they would be right. It was here that Mark Hollis first laid down the tenets upon which that genre was founded: an emphasis on silence as much as noise, the rejection of the restrictions of traditional song structures, the notion that every instrument, vocals included, should be subservient to the wider shape and direction of the song.

But, though it inspired a swathe of subsequent musicians in their approach to making music, not one of them has come close to making anything that sounds remotely like this (although These New Puritans and Bark Psychosis both gave it a good go). This is because, at its heart, ‘Spirit of Eden’ is an album inspired by life.

It isn’t propelled by intellectualism or sonic ambition. Instead its famous candlelit recording sessions, which featured a constantly rotating cast of guest musicians, aimed to capture the vitality and unpredictability of the natural world that surrounds us, a subject that endlessly fascinated Hollis.

As the magnificent opening trilogy of ‘The Rainbow / Eden / Desire’ kicks into gear, you can hear the sound of insect calls and soft rain on leaves melding interchangeably with wooden strings and murmuring horns, all before the arrival of the most thunderous harmonica solo you will ever hear. From thereon in Hollis’ unique vision of paradise come ever more sharply into focus, pure bliss seeping out from its every pore like sap from the tree of life itself.

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Talk Talk - 'Laughing Stock’ (1991)

As its cover (another beautiful illustration from James Marsh) suggests, ‘Laughing Stock’ is the duskier sibling to the sunlit ‘Spirit Of Eden’. However, I wouldn’t recommend putting on this record until you’ve become accustomed to the calmer quirks of its predecessor. Because this album is bloody odd.

With the departure of bassist Paul Webb, Hollis was free to take a hammer to any residual radio-friendliness left in the band. This is most apparent on ‘After The Flood’, where its hypnotic reverie of building organ is marred by sudden blasts of aggressive noise.

Every idea first explored on ‘Eden’ is taken to its extreme here. The quiets are quieter, the louds are louder (Hollis’ cacophonous guitar squalls on ‘Ascension Day’ could have given Sonic Youth, then at the height of their powers, a run for their money). It casually straddles an enormous dynamic range like a huge, feathery colossus.

There are those who consider this the superior release of the two and, although they are objectively wrong in this matter, it’s easy to see why. The songs ‘Taphead’ and ‘New Grass’ in particular are masterclasses in the art of restraint, each using silence itself as an instrument to highlight the splendour of the sounds surrounding it. 

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Talk Talk - 'Colour Of Spring' (1986)

Some would tell you that this is the best place to start with Mark Hollis’ back catalogue, but those people are cowards. This was Talk Talk’s bestselling album by some distance and is often viewed as their last farewell to the pop chrysalis that nurtured them.

However, unlike the records that preceded it (1982’s ‘The Party’s Over’ and 1984’s ‘It’s My Life’), this is no synthpop album. Instead it stands as their first attempt to capture a more organic and spacious sound, one they would go on to perfect over their next two releases.

Mark Hollis famously (and probably jokingly, his self-effacing nature often gets forgotten amidst the seriousness of his musical output) stated that the only reason his band used synthesisers prior to this was because they couldn’t afford an orchestra. They certainly had the budget to by this point, and the desire to push the envelope of what could be achieved sonically within the confines of a pop band is audible even on its biggest singles.

‘Living In Another World’s screeching gospel organ is punctuated by unexpected sonic diversions, while the euphoric ‘Life’s What You Make It’ is built upon a swelling guitar line that challenges Robert Fripp’s work on ‘Heroes’. But the real star of the show is ‘April 5th’, a minimalist work of wonder that finds Hollis finally cracking the code of how less can be made into more. This and ‘Chameleon Day’ also command two of the finest vocal performances he ever recorded: his unmistakeable, soul-bearing voice drawing from a bottomless well of emotion, every syllable seemingly coaxed out from his larynx like it’s his last breath.

It’s also very much worth checking out bonus track 'It's Getting Late In The Evening', another example of Hollis nailing down the ‘Talk Talk sound’ for the first time.

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Talk Talk - ‘Live At Montreux’ (1986)

The idea of a band entirely eschewing live performance in favour of becoming a studio-only outfit seems insane in today’s tour-based economy, but after they finished touring ‘Colour of Spring’ in late 1986 this is exactly what Talk Talk decided to do. Consequentially this live CD/DVD release remains the final testament to the talents of Mark Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb (plus several incredible session musicians) in concert.

Though a few ‘Spring’ tracks do get an early airing here, the real highlights of this show are the tracks from breakthrough album ‘It’s My Life’ (many of which should really be considered the definitive versions). ‘Call In The Night Boys’ features a spectacular jazz-piano breakdown, while the slow-burning ‘Renee’ commands a majesty that isn’t quite present on the studio version.

But it’s Hollis’ gut-wrenching performance of ‘Tomorrow Started’ that stays with you long after the concert ends. Behind his sunglasses his face seems wracked by existential agony, every word that helplessly spills out from it crackling with meaning.

Watching it you immediately understand why Talk Talk couldn’t continue as a live proposition or, ultimately, as a band. Mark Hollis just put too much of himself into this music.

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Mark Hollis - 'Mark Hollis’ (1998)

With each new release Talk Talk became less of a band and more the personal artistic project of Mark Hollis. Consequentially this one genuine solo release he made after they officially disbanded feels like a grace note to what had gone before, not a departure.

Many of the musicians who played on ‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ returned for what we now know for certain would be Hollis’ final project, a moving and fragile body of music that is hard to listen to in light of current circumstances.

The absence of Lee Harris’ drums makes for a softer, more contemplative listen. It is here that Hollis’ maxim about the notes you choose not to play can be just as important as those you do really comes into its own. Every note, whether softly through a bassoon or tapped lightly on a piano, stands out starkly against the silence that pervades every corner of this album.

This record does not grab the listener’s attention in the same way as those we have previously visited. Instead it reveals its secrets slowly over multiple listens, each layer peeling back until, at last, its creator’s unadorned brilliance is laid bare more clearly than ever before.

In hindsight the way that closing track ‘A New Jerusalem’ finishes with two uninterrupted minutes of silence seems entirely apt. We would never hear another word from Mark Hollis, but in this short span of years he divined more beauty in music than many artists whose careers lasted half a century longer. He never soiled his legacy, and the music he created will never grow old.

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Words: Josh Gray

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