It’s been twenty years since we’ve heard from Mark Hollis. I suppose that’s appropriate since his music, after swelling to a peak of joyous synth pop in the mid 1980’s, had itself been overcome by silence and wide open vistas. By the end, it was only the occasional, tentative musical gesture that would break free, hold on for a second, and almost frightened of its own beauty shy away like a toddler in its mother’s arms.
Mark Hollis was the frontman for the hit-making band Talk Talk. In 1982, their singles began to hit the charts and by 1986 they were selling enormous numbers of albums and selling out huge concerts, partly due to the success of perhaps their most well-known hit, “It’s My Life,” but also a string of albums that represent pop music at its very best.
1986 is the year they released their most successful album, The Colour of Spring. Here is where an insightful record executive might have begun to notice something odd and tried intervene. The Colour of Spring had plenty of catchy hooks but around the edges there’s a contemplative atmosphere. The music is beginning to emerge from a far deeper soundscape. It’s subtle, but especially in retrospect, the development is undeniably present. Without fanfare, Talk Talk had ceased to be a pop band.
I don’t know how the band experienced that transitional period. Maybe they were tired of touring and didn’t really care if their careers imploded. Maybe the pop star life had grown old and they were ready to move on. Maybe they had hoped the listening public would follow them into the artistic wilderness. Or, maybe they gave up everything to make great art. Whatever happened, it involved courage, because what happened next set in motion the eventual disintegration of the band itself as they committed commercial suicide. Mark Hollis himself retreated more and more from the public gaze. Eventually all that was left of him was a voice drifting from the silence, lingering just within earshot – and I mean just within your eardrum, as if the song he was singing was for you alone – and then making a hasty retreat. He is now a musical recluse and I wonder if he will ever sing again.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. In the wake of The Colour of Spring‘s success, the record labels missed the warning signs and Talk Talk was given complete artistic freedom over their next album. What they came up with was 1988’s Spirit of Eden. This, to my ear, is music of the apocalypse. At times brash and atonal, it is also gentle and lovely. The band is brave enough to allow moments of silence mingle with their efforts and their restraint reveals the subtle way in which creativity emerges from nothingness and eventually returns to the silence from which it came. In a way, it’s anti-pop, and as it grabs hold of and reveals the stunningly beautiful fabric of the universe, the musicians themselves fade from view. The music pushes through a gap stitched into the seams of the universe, reveals itself for a fleeting moment, and then just when it’s on the verge of connecting heaven and earth, is gone forever.
The album sold, but predictably, not well enough. The band extricated themselves from their record contract and in an act of almost insane artistic stubbornness, got to work on an even stranger piece of work, 1991’s Laughing Stock. The songs are even more obscure and, to my ear, perhaps a bit tortured and not ascending to the heights of previous work. One thing is certain, though, the band was risking everything. With album released, the band broke up, or was perhaps broken by the difficulty of the recording process, and has not made music since.
In 1998, Mark Hollis re-emerged one last time and released a solo album. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that listening to it breaks my heart. It is almost painfully private and makes its audience eavesdroppers on a conversation between a man and his muse. His voice floats amid song structures that are deceptively complex, at times gathering momentum to form a melodic phrase that strikes home like an arrow to the heart. Seemingly aware of what he has done to us, Hollis’s voice recedes into mumbles and gestures. With very few exceptions, neither Mark Hollis nor Talk Talk have been heard from since. I really, really miss them.