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Music From Beyond: Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden At 30

In pop history, there have been all sorts of shocking transformations. Bands who began in a logical place relative to their time and scene and then fired off into the stratosphere alone, discovering some new sound that could redefine the landscape or exist on its own wavelength regardless of what era’s context you could try to put around it. Think of all the ground the Beatles covered in eight years; think of Radiohead’s evolution from grunge-indebted Brit-rockers to apocalyptic visionaries by Kid A; think of Kanye’s roots as a soulful, earnest, and goofy rapper compared to the genre-warping and headline-baiting iconoclast we came to know later.

Yet for how often we see pop luminaries and titans completely overhaul their sound and identity, there are still cases that can remain outright confounding. The ones where the distance between point A and point B is so vast and so befuddling that it feels impossible to sketch a logical route between them. You can track Bowie’s incremental shifts from Young Americans to Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps); they were daring, but you could look back and understand the movement. There are other cases, though, when an artist re-emerges so totally unrecognizable that you can’ t believe it’s even the work of the same people. When Talk Talk released Spirit Of Eden 30 years ago yesterday, they joined those ranks. Led by Mark Hollis and the band’s co-writer/producer Tim Friese-Greene, they embarked on one of the most radical reinventions to ever occur in alternative music.

From 1982 to 1991, Talk Talk released five albums. The earliest of them, 1982’s The Party’s Over and 1984’s It’s My Life, were steeped in the new wave aesthetics that dominated the first half of the decade. In 1986, they branched out for The Colour Of Spring, an adventurous and successful third outing that landed somewhere adjacent to sophisti-pop. Yet while that broke new ground, Talk Talk seemingly upended everything about themselves for the final act of their career, the one that included Spirit Of Eden and its 1991 successor Laughing Stock. Their career could be regarded with a sharp BC/AD-type divide between everything preceding Spirit Of Eden and everything after, the sort of line in the sand that marks where everything changed and there could be no turning back.

Revisiting Talk Talk’s complete catalog reveals the nuances that were lingering beforehand. There are more like three distinct chapters, with The Colour Of Spring a crucial centerpiece and transition. At first, Talk Talk were dismissed as derivative bandwagon-jumpers upon the release of The Party’s Over, in particular drawing unfavorable comparisons to Duran Duran, the pop behemoths with whom they toured and once shared a producer. With It’s My Life, it appeared as if Talk Talk might make more of a personal claim for synth-pop, forging their own identity within the idiom and bringing the songs to carry it.

But despite having enduring jams like the song “Talk Talk” and It’s My Life’s title track, these albums often remain to the side considering the achievements of Talk Talk’s latter days. The Colour Of Spring sits in the middle as a conduit, still bearing the pop elements of Talk Talk’s first two albums while introducing more acoustic instrumentation and spacious arrangements, thus setting the stage for what came after.

By the late ’80s, plenty of Talk Talk’s contemporaries, from Tears For Fears to The The to Simple Minds to U2, had drifted further from the early ’80s post-punk/new wave template and begun including more elements of ’60s and ’70s rock — incorporating the blues, relying less on electronic textures, etc. But even with the hints of something else afoot on The Colour Of Spring, nobody was prepared for where the band went on Spirit Of Eden. The slick synthesizer gloss of their early days had been wholly abandoned for an organic, heavily experimental sound. That the band who made Spirit Of Eden could have at any point in their career been considered a diet Duran Duran ripoff is hilarious now, but it also underlines just how significant the polarities of their career became.

The ability to make Spirit Of Eden was rooted, apparently, in the fact that Talk Talk got enough money to buy themselves freedom. Those early singles had made their name, and The Colour Of Spring went on to become their most successful album. The way they began discussing their career when promoting Spirit Of Eden suggested that their initial work was just a consequence of resources and label grooming. In a 1988 interview with The Guardian, Hollis voiced disgust with the commercial trappings of the industry, the concessions the band supposedly had to make, and the fact that it taught him to never compromise his vision for Talk Talk again.

When it came to Spirit Of Eden, he was eager to emphasize its removal from the standards of ’80s pop: “Well, it’s certainly a reaction to the music that’s around at the moment, ‘cos most of that is shit. [Spirit Of Eden is] only radical in the modern context. It’s not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago. If we’d have delivered this album to the record company 20 years ago they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.”

While it’s somewhat hard to believe that the band who so skillfully made synth-pop just a couple years earlier always had this in their heads and were just waiting for a larger check and unobstructed studio time, there’s no doubt that Talk Talk took full advantage of the license they were given in the wake of The Colour Of Spring. Much of the album was sculpted by Hollis and Friese-Greene. Leaning on digital recording techniques — which were then cutting edge — they created Spirit Of Eden from a gigantic trove of fragments.

Those tiny building blocks were the product of outside musicians coming in and improvising, often with no context as to what the song or album was beyond an isolated track to play against. And then — somehow, painstakingly — Hollis and Friese-Greene compiled that into an album of six expansive tracks that feel like one complete and enigmatic piece, maintaining the barest echoes of rock while diving headlong into ambient, jazz, and classical.

For any Talk Talk fan who bought Spirit Of Eden in 1988, its colossal nine-minute opener “The Rainbow” was an immediate announcement that this was not the old Talk Talk, that it was dimensions removed from even the Talk Talk of two years prior. Beginning with muted trumpet and strings, the song fades in and out until a languid, fried guitar enters at two and a half minutes, soon to be met by a scorched, altered harmonica and shuffling drums. Hollis doesn’t sing until a full three and a half minutes into it. From there, those rock passages stroll, and Hollis appears disembodied over organs in what passes for the chorus; the harmonica sputters back to life desperately; the song dissipates into ambience and near-silence.

Aside from segueing perfectly into “Eden” — the transition between the two plays like a time-lapse video from sunrise glimmers at the end of “The Rainbow” to a vivid amber sunset at the start of “Eden” — “The Rainbow” is also a sort of overture for what follows. Songs begin to disappear, then reappear. Much of Spirit Of Eden is hushed and restrained, open to interpretation as funereal and haunted or a true embodiment of inner peace. Yet along the way, intrusions like that harmonica recur, violent ruptures as inextricable from the nature of Spirit Of Eden as its pristine, patient qualities otherwise.

The severity of dynamics was something very much on their minds, and something that betrayed Spirit Of Eden’s debt to jazz. Quietness, the space between passages and notes, is a major part of the arrangements here. “Pace is of the essence, even if it is a pace that approaches vanishing point at times,” Friese-Greene said in that same Guardian piece from ’88. “The more relaxed the pace, the more importance everything that happens assumes.” From there, he admitted they did consider whether the extreme shifts in dynamics might be off-putting, that they had to strike the “right note between intensity and irritation.” He ends by offering that, if people are still not into it, “maybe, with respect, they should listen to something else.”

The cumulative effect, between the way the songs bleed between each other and the album’s exact-yet-diffuse character, is the sort of listening experience that demands close attention yet also welcomes getting lost within it. Spirit Of Eden can make you feel as if you are being pulled along on its currents, drifting off into dreamscapes until the caustic guitar noise later in “Eden” or the groove-driven eruptions of “Desire” rattle you back into focus. It is, of course, hypnotic — luring you in and enticing you to look for secrets hidden deep within its atmosphere.

It is, of course, also strikingly beautiful. A quiet, improvised tapestry of an album could teeter into nothingness quickly and easily. But Talk Talk brought with them the sort of payoffs that were small yet resounding; as Friese-Greene had suggested, everything that happens feels like it has that much more weight. Flashes of overwhelming, transformative beauty pop up all over Spirit Of Eden, from that floating-above-the-world chorus of “The Rainbow,” to the clarity and power of Hollis’ melody in “Inheritance,” to the fact that the choir in “I Believe In You” can be so subdued and yet so mind-altering in its presence.

Hollis’ idiosyncratic vocals are really the only main through line connecting all of Talk Talk’s work. On those early albums, he approached the timbre of the quintessential new wave croon. But even in the context of a genre defined by gloomier characters adept at melancholic delivery, there always seemed to be a deep sadness lingering in the back of Hollis’ voice. Like he was a very old soul, too weathered and too lost to fully translate what he had seen and what he had carried with him through the years.

On Spirit Of Eden, he tapped into those deeper places. The cavernous, charismatic delivery of “Talk Talk” or “Such A Shame” or “It’s My Life” or “Life’s What You Make It” was all but gone, withered and fragile until the few, specific moments of intensity. While Hollis may have served as architect in the studio, he doesn’t always come across as the man steering the ship on the album itself. His voice has become one more searching instrument in a sea of them, one more strain in an expressionistic collection of music.

On an album this subtle, charges of pretension are obviously going to arise as much as accolades. Spirit Of Eden is an art-rock album so unflinching and unapologetic that it still registers as avant-garde today. Hollis, perhaps alluding to the boundary-exploding jazz albums of the late ’60s, might’ve had a point in arguing that Spirit Of Eden wouldn’t have been regarded as so shocking 20 years earlier. But 30 years on, it’s one of those albums that doesn’t sound like any one time or place, even after all of the praise from critics and artists cementing it as a legendary cult classic. Spirit Of Eden still sounds ancient and futuristic at once. You can look back and make sense of it by outlining what it yielded in terms of influence, but as a listening experience the album remains no less singular, no less challenging or rewarding, than it was upon release.

This is, naturally, not much of a selling point for a major record label expecting an album of surefire singles delivered to capitalize on the momentum of The Colour Of Spring. Upon hearing Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk’s label EMI were, supposedly, less than exhilarated at the prospect of putting this out into the world. How could anything like this be marketed effectively? While EMI actually wanted to keep Talk Talk signed — perhaps in misguided hopes that the band would come to their senses after Spirit Of Eden and craft another pop-oriented album that could reignite whatever goodwill remained from The Colour Of Spring — their reaction to Spirit Of Eden precipitated a legal battle that ended with Talk Talk free to sign to Polydor for their swan song Laughing Stock.

And while this line of thinking would play right into the hands of the detractors who might call Spirit Of Eden pretentious and indulgent, sometimes there are albums that aren’t supposed to be marketed, that aren’t supposed to fit into any neat boxes, that are chasing something far more eternal. Often credited as one of the first post-rock albums — and therefore a genesis point for whole new sounds that developed in the ’90s and ’00s — Spirit Of Eden is an album that plenty of artists have claimed as an influence. Yet while you can make arguments for Spirit Of Eden’s cultural importance, if you’re looking at it as an album, as its own work, there are perhaps even larger arguments to be made. The few words that are sung on Spirit Of Eden occasionally betray a spiritual bent. That’s the territory the album is traveling to.

Pop catharsis might allow us to transcend ourselves from time to time, but the kind of experimentation that Spirit Of Eden was built on, and the effects it has on your mind, are the sort built for breaking into the heavens, for wrestling with ideas beyond communication. This is often the power of the ambient and/or improvisational music Talk Talk were drawing upon: those moments when something cosmic seems to enter the music, beyond what any one musician could have dreamt up, the moments when it feels as if there is some outside power interacting with the players in the room.

That’s where Spirit Of Eden’s lasting impact lies, the reason it remains so opaque and open to our own personal connections with it all these years later. Our minds are finite, unable to even grasp the questions we should really be asking about the universe. But occasionally there is art that opens us further up, that allows us to scrape against the barriers keeping us from the next revelation. Spirit Of Eden is one of those albums in which artists were able to wrangle the numbers and patterns of music and turn them into alchemy.

It’s an effect not dissimilar from the endless wondering that might result from looking to the most interior parts of your mind or looking up to the stars. There are sparse, vague lyrics across Spirit Of Eden, often little markers only aiding the music’s meaning to flourish. Because the music here is about articulating something else. Something our languages are not capable of articulating.

After an album like that, where do you go? Artists who have ventured to similar horizons have made all kinds of decisions afterwards. They push ahead further into the ether. They eventually come back down to Earth and settle on more accessible sounds once more. They walk away, satisfied that they’ve come as close as they can, or satisfied with the realization that this road never leads to total resolution.

Three years after Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock would arrive and play like a continuation. Laughing Stock was, in some ways, more explicitly dark and abrasive, answering the star-gazing visions of Spirit Of Eden with the end of the world. Musically, its songs were also more discrete and at times easier to grasp onto. (This is all relative to the world of these last two Talk Talk albums, in which “Ascension Day” moves enough to feel like an accessible song when considered against the material that surrounds it.) In comparison, Spirit Of Eden still unfolds like one, celestial whole.

After those two albums, Talk Talk chose to walk away. They disbanded, eventually trying out their own musical projects before ceding from the music industry entirely. Hollis released a self-titled album 20 years ago, around the time he contributed to UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction, and since then has barely reappeared. This has added to the legend of Talk Talk, the synth-pop band that gradually drifted out to sea over the course of their existence. And in a sense, it’s as fitting an ending as you could ask for. Spirit Of Eden introduced the final arc in Talk Talk’s story, the story of artists becoming more inscrutable and less present with each new transmission.

A common way of looking back on their catalog is to characterize it as a band growing increasingly insular with each album, until that level of remove necessitated a total withdrawal from public life and creation. Maybe that’s true; there is no denying Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock are very personal works. But in doing so, Talk Talk gave us something bigger than them, than their career, than whatever facet of the ’80s. They gave us a piece of art that appears to come from beyond us, and just might have the ability to take us back to that place with it.