The Spirit of Talk Talk
I was recently invited to contribute to a short piece to a new book about the seminal British art-rock band Talk Talk, which features contributions from band members of Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, Weezer, Pink Floyd, Shearwater, Blur, Elbow, and many others.
Spirit of Talk Talk, a labor of love by longtime fan Toby Benjamin, collects James Marsh's distinctive artwork for the band (http://spiritoftalktalk.com/preview/) and also features written contributions from an impressive array of musicians (here's a list: http://spiritoftalktalk.com/contributors/). The book is anchored by extensive essay written by Chris Roberts, a great music journalist who first made his mark at Melody Maker and who is a musician in his own right. Here's more information about the book, which is released in September and is sure to sell out in pre-orders before then: http://spiritoftalktalk.com/about/.
I contributed a piece about Talk Talk's influence on North American musicians to the book and also helped rope in contributions by Steve Hogarth of Marillion, Tim Bowness of No-Man, Richard Barbieri of Porcupine Tree/Japan, David Torn, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket/Mutual Appreciation Society. Until now, I've been making the assumption that you, dear reader, are aware of Talk Talk and its unique legacy. To this day, many people—especially in North America—only know Talk Talk for its early New Wave-style hits and have never come across the band's late-era musical transformation into a timeless art rock band. It's no exaggeration to say that Talk Talk's The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock are profound works of art.
Quick history: In the early '80s, this British group started out seemingly in the same league as new wave synth bands like Spandau Ballet and Flock of Seagulls. Ok, not quite. Singer songwriter Mark Hollis always had a depth that distinguished the band even then. Their early albums sound very much of their time, but the title track of the group's third record, It's My Life (1984), was a hit and hinted at hidden depths. The turning point was 1986’s breakthrough, The Colour of Spring, a great album featuring stellar guitar work by Peter Gabriel's axeman, David Rhodes, and Robbie McIntosh of The Pretenders. Steve Winwood guested on organ. The album even yielded a minor hit, “Life's What You Make It,” a classic pop song that pivots on an impossibly hooky recurring piano motif. (See video up top.) On that album, Talk Talk had begun to strip away the synths in favor of a more organic sound.
Two years later, Spirit of Eden completed the band’s transformation. All the synths have been replaced by instruments such as guitar, piano, drums, clarinets, harmonium, bassoon, oboe, trumpet, and violins. The beautifully recorded album is at once atmospheric and textured without seeming cluttered and Baroque. It’s experimental, too.
You cannot tell that Spirit of Eden was recorded in the 1980s because it sounds so timeless. If Erik Satie had been a rock musician, this is the record he'd have made. It's a very dark album. Hollis, with his singularly unique and emotional voice, sounds like he'd be better off on a psychiatrist's couch than in a recording studio.
As Alan McGee (who signed Oasis and Primal Scream) recently described it in The Guardian:
Spirit of Eden has not dated; it's remarkable how contemporary it sounds, anticipating post-rock, the Verve and Radiohead. It's the sound of an artist being given the keys to the kingdom and returning with art. Yet upon completion it was seen as utter commercial suicide, as if Duran Duran had released a krautrock, free jazz, gospel album after Notorious.
In reappraising the album recently, Simon Harper of The Birmingham Post wrote:
Spirit of Eden is best described as a collection of compositions, sparse and spacious, than an album of conventional pop songs. Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. Even the concept of the traditional rock line-up is subverted on a record of such hushed beauty. Built upon layers of piano, organ, bass and guitar, it nevertheless takes in bassoon, oboe and clarinet, while “I Believe in You” features the Chelmsford Cathedral choir. Listening to its six tracks now, Spirit of Eden is still markedly alien-sounding; a feat which Radiohead have clearly tried to emulate, while coming nowhere near the spectral grace imagined by Mark Hollis. While the Cocteau Twins and various other 4AD bands have been roundly praised for their dream-pop collages, Talk Talk's contribution to the British rock canon has long been ignored.
Tragically, this album is an example of an artistic success that was a commercial failure. Spirit of Eden was ahead of its time. The record company EMI didn't understand the record and they didn't hear a hit single. Hollis and co. had a messy divorce from EMI amid several lawsuits when the label released an album of dance remixes of the band’s songs.
Talk Talk made one more album after Spirit of Eden, a fine farewell titled Laughing Stock. To many, the album is the band’s very greatest and it further refined the sound of Spirit of Eden. Pitchfork awarded an exceptionally rare grade of 10/10 to the recent reissue and also named it the 11th best record of the 1990s. By the release of Laughing Stock, however, bassist Paul Webb had been marginalized. The record was largely the word of Hollis and producer/co-writer Tim Friese-Greene with contributions by drummer Lee Harris. It was inevitable, then, that Talk Talk would disband. The rhythm section of Lee Harris and Paul Webb formed the band O.rang. Producer Tim Friese-Greene, the unofficial fourth member of the group who co-wrote songs with Hollis from The Colour of Spring onward, started recording under the name Heligoland. Bass player Webb also hooked up with Beth Gibbons of Portishead and made a good album under the band name Rustin' Man.
Mark Hollis released one eponymously titled solo album in the mid '90s. It distilled Talk Talk’s sound to a purely acoustic, chamber-music sound record live in a studio with no overdubs. While that album lacks the melodic strengths of earlier Hollis work, it's an exquisite recording—you can hear the scrape of fingers on frets— and "A Life (1895 - 1915)" is one of his finest compositions. Not long after the release of his solo record, Hollis followed in the footsteps of the likes of J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Bill Watterson by retiring early and leading an entirely private life, shunning all interview requests. But, like those other creative geniuses, he has left an astonishing legacy.
Seek out Talk Talk’s last three albums. Listen to them loud and with the lights off….
UPDATE: I had a brain fart and initially wrote James Marsh's name as Richard - apologies for that and I have made that correction!