Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Mark Hollis (1955-2019)

I happened across Talk Talk as they released their first EP, Talk Talk, which included the single "Talk Talk" (their second). I wasn't expecting much from the linguistic paucity displayed in these titles. But the band's brand of synthpop had a lush core, anchored by Paul Webb's roving bass. Lee Harris' drums were more inventive than most. Hollis contributed a lot to the melange, his mellifluous singing molding the presentation into something worth returning to.

The 1982 album was entitled The Party's Over, a strange announcement to begin a career. Perhaps the band was signalling that their music was more appropriate for an after-party. But it was also as if Hollis was already tired of the industry, already post-pop. On the title track he sings of "this love of masquerade" and other allusions to his place as a pop star. The chorus is notable for its delivery. "This crime of being uncertain (of your love) is all I'm guilty of". Purportedly a love song, as all pop must be, Hollis places the central phrase in a lower register, in parentheses. In fact, his "crime" is a more existential malaise, uncertainty in the main, not indexed to any particular (constructed) subject of love.

The refrain that echoes out the song is a take-home test for the listener. The words have now morphed to "Name the crime I'm guilty of?" Elsewhere priests lose faith and Hollis retires from the outside world ("I don't like to read the news"). His future path was written here.

It's fair to judge the 1984 album It's My Life as a sophomore slump, and by this time my own attentions were on music far removed from synth-pop. Internally, keyboardist Simon Brenner had been replaced by Tim Friese-Greene, who would become a long-term collaborator. It's worth noting that "It's my life", as a statement of purported autonomy, is lame. This declaration is tautological only, free of content.

When The Colour of Spring was released in 1986 I hardly noticed. But something wonderful had happened. The music had opened up, actions had become precise, no longer hidden in reverb. Friese-Greene's production highlights a jazz-inflected core, perhaps always implicit in the fretless bass and Hollis' legato. As the melody winds around the complex arrangement of "Happiness is Easy", it's apparent we're in different territory. The title too conflicts with Hollis' earlier malaise. And the choir of children sings about Jesus, with not a hint of irony.

Nonetheless, it's easy to find connections with Talk Talk's previous repertoire. "I Don't Believe in You" returns to a languid negativity, the singer caught in crisis. Musically, it updates first album motifs. "I'm trying to find the path ahead" sings Hollis, and it doesn't seem that he has, not yet. The music is beautiful, however; soaring guitar (courtesy Robbie McIntosh), organ and other textures sum to a wonderful organic sound.

The single "Life's What You Make It" inverts the egotism of "It's My Life". The subject might still be the singer, caught in a trap of commerce and expectation, but the title addresses a second person. The spectacular guitar figure from David Rhodes scores a bounding optimism, represented in the music video by an abundance of animal life, both great and small. The nature motif was also apparent in the moth-themed album cover (designed by the appropriately named James Marsh). Animals were to become a Talk Talk visual trademark, despite being an unusual choice for music often subjective. Talk Talk were, after all, "Living in Another World", not the earthy realm of beetles and antelope.

The commercial success of the band was created through songs such as these, though they only went Top 40 on initial release. But the 1990 compilation Natural History sold over a million copies, and catapulted re-issued singles ("It's My Life", "Life's What You Make It") higher into the charts than ever before.

But the band was off the radar, spending a year with producer Phil Brown. Hollis and Friese-Greene assembled an ever-changing musical configuration to explore a retrograde method of making music as pure expression, free of expectation. The template here is "Chameleon Day" from The Colour of Spring, but extended to forty minutes of changing moods. The result, Spirit of Eden, is rightly heralded as a landmark in music. It's rooted in modal jazz and singer-songwriter solipsism, but the result is totally "other". It's also far noisier than usually credited, giant crescendos of harmonica, guitar, and massed woodwinds battering at the ears.

Hollis himself judged that "It’s only radical in the modern context. It’s not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago." But context is everything. To completely ignore context and expectation, to court lawsuits with your record company and dissipate a band... these are brave acts. Despite influences, no-one had ever heard anything like Spirit of Eden.

Though a single was impossible to imagine, EMI edited "I Believe In You" and even produced a music video. The song is chilling even before you decode the line "I saw heroin for myself". Then it becomes a remarkable exercise in all those things we are told don't exist any more: catharsis, redemption, love. Hollis hated making the video (his last) and you can see why. He's falling apart right there, in front of you. "I just can't bring myself to see it starting."

I find it significant that the downer "I Don't Believe In You" has become an optimistic "I Believe In You". Especially now that a song title is all we have as semantic placeholder. Hollis' use of indecipherable diction and extended legato strips language of its indexical function. The name Talk Talk has become ironic.

So, there's no longer any point writing about Talk Talk. If I say nothing about Laughing Stock (1991) the Hollis solo album (1998), a long track "Piano" (credited to "John Cope") on the Allinson / Brown record AV1 (1998), it's not because these deserve to be ignored. Indeed, quite the opposite. They are genius for which I have no words.

Twenty years ago Hollis retired from the music industry.

"I choose for my family. Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time."

A few days ago, he died, age 64. This remembrance is for his family, friends, and others he left behind. Take care. Please take care.

The music? The music speaks for itself.


1 comment:

robin said...

Rarities now posted here:


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