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The Otherworldly Music of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis Looked Death Square in the Eye

on February 26, 2019, 12:48pm

“I get on great with silence. I don’t have a problem with it. If you’re going to break into it, try to have a reason for doing it.”

When he spoke these words during a rare interview in the early 1990s, Mark Hollis was guiding us right back to the source. The Talk Talk main man and solo artist, who has died at the age of 64, was not just a craftsman of quietude: he was an artist who faced down the leering chasm of mortality and that which lies beyond with a gossamer touch all his own.

While the death of a reclusive auteur is often an open invitation for knee-jerk revisionism, the music that Hollis eked out at the peak of his powers feels worthy of the most high-flown superlatives. On five albums across nine years, he shifted Talk Talk from airbrushed new wave upstarts to a monastic project that reconfigured art-rock as a prayerful pursuit. Not least in its final years as an obsessive preoccupation, clasping for something necessarily out of reach, Hollis’ craft felt like a grand meditation on what it means to be here and where we’re all headed.

Mark Hollis

Mark Hollis of Talk Talk

Formed in London in 1981 by Hollis, Lee Harris, Simon Brenner, and Paul Webb, Talk Talk were defined by their atypical trajectory. From starting out as EMI-signed upstarts, largely molded on the runaway success of Duran Duran, to releasing two of the most revered and boundary-pushing albums of a generation, they showed that, with an unblinking MO and a visionary bandleader at the helm, transcendence isn’t beyond the realm of possibility.

Hollis emerged as an ambassador of spontaneity and an exponent of “the moment” versus technique by the time Talk Talk entered London’s Battery Studios to record The Colour of Spring in 1985. Teaming up with Tim Friese-Greene — who produced its predecessor, It’s My Life, and would work with the band until their dissolution in 1991 — songs like “April 5th” and lead single “Life’s What You Make It” captured an outfit outgrowing FM-angled maximalism in favour of sacrosanct chamber pop. It stands to reason, then, that Hollis later viewed Talk Talk’s first three albums as “trying to get to” where the band’s later records eventually arrived. Each iteration felt like a deep, organic leaning inwards and a U-turning retreat from a band that had once rubbed shoulders with Madonna and Billy Ocean on Top of the Pops.

When it arrived in 1988, Spirit of Eden wasn’t so much another brazen leap as a radical vault into the unknown. The result of 14 months of improvisation in the studio (engineer Phill Brown recalled “an endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together”), it felt like it crept through some small crack in the ether at 3 a.m. “Eden”, with its ebbing guitar progressions, preempted the sparsity and tease of every great ’90s post-rock band. Penned shortly after Hollis’ brother, Ed, died of a heroin overdose, “I Believe in You” was a masterful marriage of deft dub textures and sublime choral ambience. Opener “The Rainbow”, meanwhile, remains an immersive and meditative overture like no other. Throughout, Hollis is center stage, a brittle technician of the soul in a self-contained world and a diviner of holy, densely textured arrangements that reached — and seemed to arrive — beyond.

If dropping the needle on Spirit of Eden felt akin to eavesdropping, Laughing Stock went one further. Mirroring the most vulnerable thoughts of myriad witching hours spent alone, Talk Talk’s studio adieu repurposed the finespun, jazz-leaning ambience of Spirit of Eden as chaos and beatitude. The presence of a man who has returned to drive the point home, Hollis’ elliptical sorcery on the likes of “After the Flood” and “Ascension Day”, with its refrain of “kill the bet, I’ll burn on judgment day,” found the frontman staring death square in the eye. But the death knell that rings out, both here and on Spirit of Eden, isn’t one of foreboding or fear. Bolstered by musicians wielding patience as process, Hollis could conjure paeans of pure acceptance of what lies beyond. Preferring to emphasize its “humanitarian” basis, he didn’t need to ascribe theological context to his music: the innate religiosity of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock — along with Hollis’ equally remarkable self-titled solo album, which was released in 1998 — happened in and of itself.

Bowing out after Laughing Stock, five years after Talk Talk played their final live show in a public square in Salamanca, Spain, Hollis’ retirement from the public eye felt impactful in its lack of ceremony. In his vacancy — in his absence from doting retrospectives and refusal to kowtow to lucrative requests to resurface — he emerged as a quintessential anti-pop hero. Many great musicians have a desire to break into silence. For Mark Hollis, his reasoning — just like the unrepeatable majesty of his work — always felt immune to annotation. As the flood of obituaries come crashing in, and he’s rightfully heralded as one of modern music’s rare masters, that continues to feel like the point.

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