Celebrating The Genius Of Mark Hollis In 15 Songs

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

Celebrating The Genius Of Mark Hollis In 15 Songs

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

When an artist like Mark Hollis dies, there are different kinds of ripple effects. We see this often now, a celebrated or iconic artist passes on, and the cycles of public grieving unfold — friends and collaborators from decades past sharing anecdotes and condolences, a torrent of tributes like this one. Yet cases like this one are a bit different from when a legendary, famous innovator the likes of David Bowie or Prince dies; their presence is obviously felt in so many places over so many years, and the wave of grief feels universal.

Just like Prince and Bowie, Mark Hollis was a visionary. But the people who saw themselves in his music are likely to develop an obsessive, personal connection — as if the body of work he leaves behind acts as a secret church for those who find it. The influence of Talk Talk’s adventurous, shape-shifting career is vast and diverse. But it is also specific. In the wake of his death, we have seen (and will continue to see) references to “an ’80s icon.” And he was that. But he was also an artist beyond time and place, the type of artist who was trying to show us something unreachable. With Hollis gone, it feels as if we’ve lost a guiding voice, one that once harbored the ambition to bring us towards true transcendence. And that absence reverberates even when we hadn’t heard that voice for a while, after Hollis retired from music in the late ’90s and drifted off into normal life; into obscurity; into … somewhere else.

On some level, I mean “voice” very literally. Hollis was gifted with a unique instrument, one that once allowed him to charismatically steer hook-laden pop songs and the same one that would be full of nuance and fragility when taking on the cosmos in Talk Talk’s late-career, groundbreaking work. When Talk Talk were pigeonholed as new wave carpetbaggers, Hollis was already a presence, his cavernous croon arising from the pop tropes of the time yet also separating the band from their surroundings. It would subtly shift through those early albums, taking on weathered timbres, always hinting at a sadness and a wisdom that seemed far more ancient than Hollis himself. As Talk Talk’s music grew more personal, insular, and seeking, his voice changed with it — still capable of powerful bursts of ecstasy or pain, yet often sounding as if the alchemical process that birthed Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock prematurely aged him far beyond his years.

I also mean voice in spiritual sense. To have entered the pop sphere being (uncharitably) compared to Duran Duran and to have exited after a small collection of albums that obliterated genre, that helped establish post-rock, that live on as enigmatic works bearing beauty that alternates between horrific, inscrutable, and awe-inspiring — this is one of the strangest career arcs out there. It was Hollis and his longtime collaborator Tim Friese-Greene who made that journey together. Arriving a few years into the band’s existence, Friese-Greene partnered with Hollis on reimagining what Talk Talk, and what something loosely deemed “pop music,” could be. Hollis would soon dismiss Talk Talk’s earlier albums. He was always trying to grasp at something greater, something ineffable, something celestial. And soon after he found it, he walked away. What he left behind was a blueprint, a map full of mystery and hope for artists trying to venture out and find some new music that felt as if it came from a lost history and an unknown future at once.

No great artist’s work can be properly dissected so soon after their death. With Hollis, the problem is far more glaring. The achievements of his most significant writing are specifically rooted in their subtleties, the way the story unfolds and recedes back out of focus, demands you let yourself drift into a trance while looking for answers. Yet at the same time, Hollis was a genius whose career and art deserve to be celebrated — from, yes, even the nascent synth-pop days, to the avant-garde end of Talk Talk, through to Hollis’ sole album under his own name. For fans, hopefully the songs below serve as reminders of that first revelatory experience in hearing them. For the uninitiated, perhaps these may serve as a roadmap through a singular career.

“Talk Talk” (From The Party’s Over, 1982)

It is not uncommon to brush aside Talk Talk’s earliest days; very good synth-pop tends to pale in comparison to the new horizons they explored later. As mentioned before, Hollis and Friese-Greene themselves spoke ill of the early albums, at various points suggesting that Spirit Of Eden represented their true ambitions all along, visions simmering until they got enough money and freedom to realize them. Perhaps that is true. Perhaps there is good reason most narratives about Hollis and Talk Talk do not dwell on their 1982 debut The Party’s Over.

But that isn’t quite fair: The Party’s Over and It’s My Life sound of their time, but they are also littered with highly memorable songs. One of them is a track that bears the same name as the band, an infectious synth-pop gem that features a younger Hollis both perfecting a new wave delivery and pushing it. Even here, you could already tell this was a more unique vocalist than the band’s initial also-ran status would’ve suggested. And besides their more accessible charms, these early tracks are a crucial prologue to the whole story. Talk Talk needed to go here, to understand the mechanisms of a pop song in and out, before they could subsequently manipulate, break apart, rearrange, and erase those rules.

“Such A Shame” (From It’s My Life, 1984)

It seems that when people go back to Talk Talk’s first two albums, it’s partially about finding the hints of what was to come — songs like “Renee” suggesting the later albums’ more expansive soundscapes, still trapped in neon hues for the moment. But like Peter Gabriel’s path through the same decade, there is worth in celebrating both the flashes of pop acumen and the restless ingenuity, as well as the conversation between those polarities within the artist’s work.

There is certainly something disorienting in revisiting the video for a single like “Such A Shame.” It’s strange to see Hollis almost boyish, grinning in his cap — as if, just like Talk Talk was still evolving into their artistic identity, he was always supposed to be an older man and had yet to grow into his body. And yet, these songs are worth remembering too — albums like Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock stick with you by settling deep into your soul, but tracks like “Such A Shame” stick with you in the more traditional sense, a welcome presence often playing in your head hours after hearing it.

“It’s My Life” (From It’s My Life, 1984)

Today, “It’s My Life” is probably the most famous Talk Talk song, the song people know even if they don’t know the names Talk Talk or Mark Hollis. The track was introduced to another generation by way of No Doubt’s great 2003 cover. And while they updated it with early ’00s sheen, they played the song pretty faithfully otherwise — fittingly, considering that “It’s My Life” was a brilliant pop song from the start. This was the peak of Talk Talk’s early iteration, a moment that was still steeped in new wave aesthetics but found Talk Talk and Hollis asserting their voice within that framework. The synths are lush, Hollis’ performance expressive. If they had decided to release more songs like this, they might’ve become defining pop artists of the decade. Instead, having written their perfect pop song, Talk Talk immediately set out to new territory.

“Life’s What You Make It” (From The Colour Of Spring, 1986)

Like many of their contemporaries, Talk Talk began incorporating more acoustic instrumentation by the mid-’80s, swiftly moving away from the synth-based new wave style. The resulting album, The Colour Of Spring, is also partially of its time — it links up with the sophisti-pop sounds that would develop in the back of the decade — and would garner Talk Talk a new level of mainstream success. In hindsight, it was also a turning point within their career, lightly foreshadowing the organic textures of their later albums.

Perhaps the most enduring track from that album is “Life’s What You Make It,” a piece of clattering-yet-precise funk. Now driven by piano, guitar, and Hollis’ voice truly coming into its own, the track already sounded miles removed from their early synth-pop days. Next to “It’s My Life,” “Life’s What You Make It” represents the heights of Talk Talk’s pop songwriting. But hidden within these memorable tracks were experiments with blues and soul that would soon explode outwards.

“Living In Another World” (From The Colour Of Spring, 1986)

Another highlight from The Colour Of Spring, “Living In Another World” was a seven-minute epic driven by hyperactive rhythms, organ, and peels of harmonica. It’s also one of the many songs in which the natural sound of Hollis’ voice seems to swing between aggrieved and some gorgeous resolution. In the verses, he wraps his way around the words as resonantly and tremulously as usual. Then there’s that classic uptick of intensity in his delivery, culminating in the chorus’ conclusion, the nonchalant prettiness in the appearance of the song’s title in the lyrics.

“Give It Up” (From The Colour Of Spring, 1986)

Like “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living In Another World,” “Give It Up” is emblematic of the soulful and organ-drenched sound of The Colour Of Spring. It’s also one of the few pre-Spirit Of Eden songs you could truly see transposed to the later albums — the way Hollis drops into expressionistic verses, then comes back swinging for the chorus would be far more diffuse on either Spirit Of Eden or Laughing Stock, but is still reminiscent of his more emphatic moments on those albums. Like many of the songs on this list, “Give It Up” is also just another pure example of Hollis’ voice — the way he could take a simple and empty phrase like “Give It Up” and make it feel profound in his reading of it.

“The Rainbow” & “Eden” (From Spirit Of Eden, 1988)

You might find Talk Talk fans who gravitate towards The Colour Of Spring. You might find contrarians who will argue that their synth-pop albums were their best. You could very likely come across those who feel their swan song, Laughing Stock, was also the best work of their career. But no matter your personal predilections, Spirit Of Eden often feels like the crown jewel. The album that introduced a totally transformed Talk Talk, the album that lives on as the first and best embodiment of Hollis’ idiosyncratic vision, the album that opened up whole new realms of possibilities for the artists who followed.

It was compiled from countless fragments, musicians improvising in the studio and then being turned into a grand, ornate collage. As such, it defied the easy single approach; at just six songs, with each composition weaving through new sounds and passages, it’s also hard to excerpt anything to listen to on its own. Spirit Of Eden feels like one complete piece, more in line with experimental classical or jazz works than the pop sphere to which Talk Talk still nominally belonged.

This is particularly true of the album’s first two songs, “The Rainbow” and “Eden,” listed together here. Throughout, Spirit Of Eden weaves between silence, the space between notes, and volcanic moments that play out that much more intensely thanks to the quiet they disrupt. But “The Rainbow” in particular felt like a slow curtain rising on this new world, Hollis’ voice not appearing until over three minutes in, now sounding like a curling wisp of smoke. Things rise, and fall, and rise again, eventually sliding directly into “Eden.” It’s a track that is sublime, and then is violent, with one of Hollis’ most powerful performances ever.

“Inheritance” (From Spirit Of Eden, 1988)

In just four years, Talk Talk went from the punctuation of glossy synthesizers to sounds that bordered on imperceptible. “Inheritance” was indicative of what Hollis and Friese-Greene were trying to achieve on Spirit Of Eden. Flickers of sound sit together in a shimmering haze, things abruptly cohering for a chorus, then sliding back into the clouds. The abstracted jazz influence is prominent here, again underlining how quickly and severely Talk Talk had transformed in just a couple of years.

“I Believe In You” (From Spirit Of Eden, 1988)

Spirit Of Eden is an album that is both restrained and intricate, an album throwing ghosts of gospel and jazz and blues and free-form rock together into something revolutionary, something that feels truly transcendent. “I Believe In You” is perhaps the moment in which it all comes together perfectly. It’s not quite representative of its surroundings; being relatively more straightforward, it was the track EMI tried to turn into a single in deflated hopes of repeating the pop successes of Talk Talk’s recent past. It is, however, representative of this album’s power.

Because Spirit Of Eden exists in such a unique place, you can’t always tell whether it conveys broken defeat or true peace. You can’t tell whether it’s supposed actually convey either, or whether it’s supposed to drift along the spectrum of human experience. In what is maybe the album’s single most striking moment, a haggard Hollis repeats the word “spirit” while a spectral choir emerges behind him. And in that moment, you can feel a deep sense of sadness and longing. But you can also feel transported to a place more vibrant and healing than you could’ve imagined. That is why this album, and Hollis’ work on it, has lingered and remained so mesmerizing over 30 years later. It is the kind of work that is still revealing new things to us decades later, according to what we need from it in that moment. If Hollis had only ever released this album, his legacy would be secure. But then he followed it with another, final Talk Talk album.

“Ascension Day” (From Laughing Stock, 1991)

Three years after Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk returned with their fifth album, Laughing Stock. It was a continuation of the bold new direction they had established on its predecessor. In tracks like “Myrrhman” or “Taphead” or “Runeii,” it was perhaps even more minimal and elusive. But this was balanced out by compositions that were comparatively direct, even if still traveling through unforeseen waters.

“Ascension Day” belonged to the latter category. It is a staggering, cathartic piece of roiling jazz-rock, perhaps the most instantly accessible and memorable song from the latter two Talk Talk releases. It’s also a moment that provides a clear example of the broad influence these albums had.

The freedom of these albums allowed plenty of artists in different disciplines to take something away. In “Ascension Day,” you can see foreshadowing for direct descendants like Elbow; the progressive but focused structure here is basically a template for a lot of the post-Britpop band’s early output. But there are bigger names with landmark works you can hear in “Ascension Day” as well. You don’t get to Radiohead’s experimentalism without Talk Talk, and if you look at “Ascension Day” in particular you could imagine it sitting alongside an ’00s Radiohead song, In Rainbows or so onward, their arpeggios and krautrock rhythms feeling like a close cousin to the fried guitars and jazz beat Talk Talk employed here. You don’t get to David Bowie’s other-dimensional jazz-rock excursions on Blackstar without these albums. That was the magnitude of what Hollis and Friese-Greene were up to here, art that resonated across generations and disciplines.

“After The Flood” (From Laughing Stock, 1991)

Yesterday evening, amidst the reports of Hollis’ death, I walked out of my office and into Times Square. It was twilight, and violently windy. I was listening to “Ascension Day,” and it struck me that in that moment it sounded like an apocalypse. That’s the other way in which Laughing Stock departed from Spirit Of Eden. Where the preceding album could feel different depending on your state of mind, Laughing Stock often played like a more harrowing and bleak affair. It could sound like the end of the world, Talk Talk traversing blackened earth.

“After The Flood” might be the song that evokes it most. Placed directly after “Ascension Day,” its name feels important. A funereal organ acts as a current underneath, for a song that glides calmly through the wreckage. On two albums that boasted many moments of startling beauty, “After The Flood” ranked towards the top. It’s a bit more straightforward, but no less unnerving.

“New Grass” (From Laughing Stock, 1991)

Laughing Stock is bookended by languid, hushed compositions. But within those bookends there are also mirroring epics, the totemic “Ascension Day” and “New Grass.” On Spirit Of Eden, several songs would come in and out of focus as Hollis and Friese-Greene manipulated dynamics and quiet; on Laughing Stock, several songs refused that moment of even coming into focus, spending their whole existence floating in the shadows.

“New Grass” and the songs like it provided the way in. It is still an expressionistic and suggestive track by almost any other artist’s standards, gently unspooling along liquid guitars and that ever-present organ. In the context of Laughing Stock, this is the emotional climax, a nearly 10-minute rumination that sounds like a resolute pilgrimage. After it, “Runeii” is an epilogue, the soundtrack for Talk Talk receding into the ether after finding the sound they had been searching for.

“The Watershed” (From Mark Hollis, 1998)

After Laughing Stock, Talk Talk disbanded. That was likely as fitting an endpoint as any. In just seven years a group had gone from New Romantic synth-pop to a sound unlike anyone else. It was one of the great, fascinating arcs in pop history, and then they were done. They had said what they wanted to say, managed to conjure a new and secret sound and render it in the outside world.

Hollis wouldn’t release anything else for seven years, until he returned with his self-titled solo album in 1998. As has been described in the time since, it often feels even quieter and more minimal than the Talk Talk albums that came before. And the effect was often the same, as on highlights like “The Watershed”: The sparseness of it all allowed each moment of clarity to ring out that much sharper, each emotional burst from Hollis to crash like thunder through music that otherwise depicted solitude and calm.

“A Life (1895-1915)” (From Mark Hollis, 1998)

If any detractors wanted to call Hollis esoteric or pretentious along the way, he was certainly giving them a lot of ammunition with “A Life (1895-1915).” Here, he was drawing inspiration from Roland Leighton — a British soldier who was engaged to Vera Brittain when he died. Here, Hollis was crafting an eight minute piece in which discrete sections — mournful piano, muted-yet-cacophonous clarinets — were meant to trace the severe peaks and valleys of optimism and defeat that he imagined in a man’s life, born before the beginning of one century and dying young in a catastrophic war. Here, Hollis was operating pretty much entirely divorced from anything resembling the pop roots he once grew from, delving ever further into the jazz and classical influences he had brought to the fore a decade prior.

“A Life (1895-1915)” acts as the nucleus of Mark Hollis. And it’s also a portrait of just how uncompromising an artist he truly was. Plenty of pop musicians aspire to, or fake their efforts at, higher or more conceptual art. But Mark Hollis was a truly rare breed, a man who attained some modicum of fame, set about imploding it by following his muses into the wilderness, and somehow emerged with work that would yield far greater ramifications than another couple of successful ’80s singles. He’s one of those musicians that, in his removed and quiet place, could say he truly changed things.

So after returning with his solo album, Hollis receded out of view again. There were no live performances, and no more albums. For the last two decades, Hollis retired from the music industry he’d always held such disdain for, periodically reappearing to contribute something small, but never compiling another album of his own work. This, too, is rare. The musician who can find enough satisfaction and peace with the music they have made to say, “That is enough.” That is a complete body of work, one Hollis would no longer give his voice to. But over the course of 16 years and six albums, he had already given us more than enough.

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