Quietly magisterial is one of many phrases one might use to describe the music of Mark Hollis, the recently deceased singer and chief composer of the seminal 1980s and early ’90s band Talk Talk. It’s certainly an adequate elevator pitch for a band that was so much more with a significantly smaller output than its market competitors.
Whereas other bands of the era, initially traveling under the New Romantic umbrella, were mostly synthesizer swoons and moon/June/spoon warbling about whatever topic would set the stage for MTV videos, Talk Talk set their sights higher. So high, in fact, one might assume they were literally knocking on heaven’s door.
How else to describe a musical act that abjured irony when mentioning God, and went so far as recording their magnum opus in an actual church? That they did it so well explains why so many curators of rock music history still position Talk Talk and Hollis’ only solo album above efforts by their so-called peers 25 years after the group disbanded and 20 years since its singer hung up his spurs.
Talk Talk Rose Above the Competition
Not that there wasn’t heady competition––bands like Ultravox! (before and after founder John Foxx inaugurated an impressive solo career), Echo & the Bunnymen, Icicle Works, Kate Bush, and Japan spring to mind as well as Bryan Ferry’s solo albums during the same period, but Talk Talk eventually proved itself a musical tour de force in a league all its own. Then nothing but silence and one terrific solo album. For the past two decades, fans and critics alike have yearned for new output, but nada.
Now, Hollis has died after a short illness and all hopes for new music are dashed. Yet his musical legacy is as strong, if not stronger, than when he was actively recording. This was not an artist cut down in his prime, leaving fans conjuring what-ifs: What would a 1999 album by Jimi Hendrix sound like? Would Nick Drake ever have found success had he lived?
We saw the diminished returns (for the most part) of a splintered Beatles and equally diminished but relatively stable lineup of the Rolling Stones. We awakened one morning and Talk Talk was simply gone. A few years later, Hollis unleashed another solo, masterpiece, and––poof!––he was gone, too, with several Elvis-sighting-in-a-Kalamazoo-Burger-King musical moments.
Perhaps he had nothing to left to say, or perhaps he realized he might have raised critical expectations of the type of music he was capable of producing to such heights he’d never be able to match it again. Lightning seldom strikes twice, but sometimes it flashes on a wonderful string of stellar albums.
Think of Van Morrison’s legendary eight-album run from 1968’s “Astral Weeks” to 1974’s “Veedon Fleece” and the live set “It’s Too Late to Stop Now.” With Talk Talk and Hollis, it began with 1986’s “The Colour of Spring” and, two years later with the glorious “Spirit of Eden,” followed by 1991’s “Laughing Stock” and concluding with “Mark Hollis” in 1998.
Even considering Talk Talk’s first two albums, “The Party’s Over” (1982) and “It’s My Life” (1984) are darn good albeit deservedly overshadowed by their post-synth phase, Hollis is still two albums and a decade shy of Morrison’s staggering accomplishment. I acknowledge it’s an unfair comparison. After all, Drake is remembered largely for only three albums that sold next to nothing during his lifetime as well as a smattering of subsequently anthologized tracks released posthumously.
Some artists are anything but actual artists, but manage to pump out consistent album after album of dreck. Seldom does quantity match consistent quality.
Hollis’ Talent Was Undeniable
But what best describes Hollis’ talent that we should miss his 20-year absence from recording new material and recent death? Seattle-based writer Dave Segal, a longtime acquaintance and cherished friend of more than 33 years, explained that Hollis exuded integrity, extolling his “refusal merely to repeat a ‘winning’ formula. In the eternal battle of commerce versus art, he sided conclusively with the latter, inspiring thousands of discerning experimental-music and post-rock aficionados rather than pleasing millions of casual music consumers.”
This assessment was seconded by Hillsdale College professor Bradley Birzer, another personal friend, who wrote: “After making it huge in the pop market and on the then-newly emergent MTV in 1982 and 1984, Hollis went into full and complete artistic mode, creating music for the sake of beauty rather than for the sake of profit.”
Birzer also captures the essence of Hollis’ lyrics on the first two Talk Talk albums, which dealt with “loss and redemption, confusion and hope” while set to early ’80s dance beats. Yet somehow an appeal to God finds its way into the mix: “Take this punishment away, Lord/Name the crime I’m guilt of/Too much hope I’ve seen as virtue.”
Fortunately the beats and synthesizers were jettisoned in time for their third album, “The Colour of Spring,” while Hollis’ lyrics continued to nod toward the spiritual. Choirs and traditional keyboards usurped the Fairlight synthesizers that became the bane of mid-80s pop music.
If “The Colour of Spring” was the band’s artistic breakthrough, admirable enough by itself, the follow-up was an unqualified masterpiece both lyrically and musically. Recorded in a rented Suffolk church over the course of 14 months, “Spirit of Eden” is 1988’s best headphone album by a long stretch. It also angered the band’s record label, EMI, to the point they sued the group for delivering an album with no commercial potential (EMI lost the case).
Frippery guitars combine with harmonica and muted toms and piano to conjure the mystical environment of the album’s title and offering a musical offering to God to end the world’s suffering caused by human indifference before, as Birzer notes, ending with a reconciliation that humanity is fallen. But, wait! That’s only side one (for those of us still addicted to vinyl).
Side two features the spiritual lament “I Believe in You,” a terrible, tragic, beautiful ode to Hollis’ older brother, who was fighting a losing battle with heroin addiction. It adapts a prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It’s not your typical teenybopper fare.
On what would become their final album, “Laughing Stock,” Talk Talk doubled down on the Christian-inspired lyrics––this was meditative chamber music as opposed to Christian rock––and ECM-reminiscent jazz, folk, and opening with a nice, funky percussive beat before a wonderful children’s chorus enters the mix. Ponder for a few minute this: “Lifted up/Reflected in returning love you sing/Heaven waits/Someday Christendom may come/Westward/Evening sun recedent/Set my resting vow/Hold in open heart.”
Hollis disappeared for more than seven years before realizing there was a sixth load in the creative chamber. His self-titled album was an impressive swan song to a brilliant career. Jazzy, ambient, and remarkably emotional, it’s another tour-de-force effort.
Beyond that: Relative silence for 21 years and then death for a man still a year shy of his 65th birthday. Stepping away from the world of recording and touring was what he felt necessary for properly raising his children, and one might conjecture watching his radio DJ and band manager brother succumb to addiction was one reason he abandoned the industry. Whatever the reasons, he left a cache of wonderfully artistic albums to remember him by.