Not much shocks me anymore, and that’s not a challenge. But from time to time, the infinite throws me a curve ball and I am reminded that life is seldom fair.
Take, for example, Mark Hollis. He was the lead singer of the band Talk Talk, which had two major hits in the 1980s: “Talk Talk” and “It’s My Life,” lovingly covered later on by the band No Doubt. These two songs were both of their time and beyond it. Often regarded in the same breath as Duran Duran because of the synth attack, the similarities were very much surface-level. Duran Duran was all about the groove, but it always seemed (to me, at least) like Talk Talk was shooting for deeper game. Perhaps it was the sharpness of Hollis’ vocal delivery which stepped beyond the beds of keys. Perhaps it was an underlying ambition that could be sensed, even back then.
That ambition would explode in the most remarkable way at the end of the ’80s with the album Spirit of Eden. Those who knew the group solely from those pop hits must have suffered whiplash from the changes. Here was a record that was absolute pop career suicide, and the band did not care one whit. The recording was lush and spare all at once. It was jazz, but not. It was an example of what was quickly becoming “post-rock.” Those who got it, got it in a big way, but they were a small little cult.
For me, the follow up, 1991’s Laughing Stock, was even better. I knew about the ’80s hits, of course, but came to Laughing Stock with no idea of the band’s metamorphosis. I too experienced whiplash as I listened to that cassette, first with puzzlement, then curiosity, then with utmost respect. If you want to know when the ’80s really died, it wasn’t necessarily with the “grunge” movement of the ’90s. It was with latter-day Talk Talk.
It is, in large part, due to Hollis’ voice. Sometimes strong and insistent, but often a resolute quaver. He was also the driving force behind the creation of the songs, even though they were built through studio improvisations. There’s a lot of texts out there noting his perfectionism during the process, under the watchful gaze of longtime band collaborator Tim Friese-Greene.
These weren’t songs to run laps to, drive to the mall with, party alongside, or to blast at the beach. These were songs that you were meant to sink into, very slowly, at the pace of sap running down a tree, ensnaring creatures that were caught on top of the bark.
That’s rather floral prose, I suppose, but I can’t describe the album in any other way. It was immersive in a way I had not experienced from music before. It was deeply influential to me, not only as one who appreciates music, but occasionally makes it as well. It was also the last album from the entity called Talk Talk. Mark Hollis released a solo album but, sadly, I’ve never heard it.
It was confirmed around 6:00 p.m. EST that Hollis has died. No further information is available yet.
Some artist deaths make me sad and terribly melancholic for days. This one…I suppose the only word is angry, not toward Hollis, but toward the culture. Sure, those early hits were great, but those later albums should have launched Talk Talk into an entirely different stratosphere. Critics raved, yet these records remain that shared secret among super-nerdy music fans. It was that cryptic code. If they knew about Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, you knew their heads were screwed on right.
They say that “good work leads to good fortune.” This band, and its lead singer, kind of buries that cliche, and there’s something fundamentally wrong about that.