Unpublished. Written October 2014.
The Colour of Music – ‘Spirit Of Eden’ & ‘Laughing Stock’
(No idea why this piece wasn't published. Obviously, it needs to be read in the context of when it was written.)
“Before you play two notes learn how to play one note — and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”
These are the words of Mark Hollis, singer and visionary leader of Talk Talk, and over time they’ve come to be regarded as a virtual manifesto for the generations of post-rock bands that followed in Talk Talk’s wake. Hollis’s obsession with the placement of sounds in sonic space and the possibilities of the recording process led to two of the most extraordinary albums in the rock canon, ‘Spirit Of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’. Yet this pair of modern classics – uncelebrated on release, but since cited as an influence on artists as diverse as Radiohead, Elbow, Portishead and DJ Shadow – also have one of music’s most unlikely creation stories.
Talk Talk have one of the strangest and most extraordinary trajectories in modern music. Formed by Hollis in 1981 from the ashes of new wave punk band The Reaction, Talk Talk were initially styled as New Romantics alongside the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. They enjoyed early success with singles “Today” and “Talk Talk” (an old Reaction song re-tooled for the synth pop era), but were regarded (at least in the UK) as a second-tier band. Yet despite this, there’s still hints of the greatness to come, particularly on the moody title track of their 1982 debut album ‘The Party’s Over’. And already, Hollis’s voice is a thing of unusual beauty and restrained power, yearning and soulful, but never histrionic. Returning in 1984 with ‘It’s My Life’, their sound had become bigger and more panoramic, with Hollis’s piano also noticeably more prominent in the mix. Scoring major hits with “Such A Shame”, “Dum Dum Girl” and “It’s My Life”, Talk Talk achieved their commercial zenith, with the album going gold across Europe.
But it was on their third album, 1986’s ‘The Colour Of Spring’, that things started to get really interesting. The synthetic textures of their previous two albums were almost entirely gone, replaced by an organic assembly of ‘real’ instruments and venerable session players. While still producing music that was recognisably in the pop/rock mould, the core group of Hollis, bassist Paul Webb, drummer Lee Harris and producer/collaborator Tim Friese-Greene introduced a new, dynamic sense of space and, yes, colour into the songs. Where previously there had been a finely-tuned mechanism, now there was music that reflected the idiosyncrasies of the natural world, where the atmosphere and flow of a track might be subtly altered by a sudden flurry of sound jumping out of the mix, whether it be classical guitar, Variophon (a breath-controlled synthesizer), or indeed just silence. This idea that a song could be far more than just a neatly-packaged series of notes and chords would be a guiding principle behind what was to come next…
If ‘The Colour Of Spring’ had signalled a return to Arcadia and a defiant rejection of the artificial, over-processed pop of the mid-80s, then Talk Talk’s next album would utterly confound the expectations of critics and fans alike… I had become a fan of the band off the back of the brilliant “Life’s What You Make It” single, its rolling piano, sky-scraping guitar and ecstatic vocal sounding unlike anything else in the charts at the time. I was also lucky enough to see them on ‘The Colour of Spring’ tour (which would turn out to be their last), and recall Hollis in shades holding onto the mic stand for dear life, nodding his head furiously as though lost in some shamanic reverie. So when 1988’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’ album was released, I rushed out and bought it immediately… and was initially as nonplussed as everybody else. This feeling soon gave way to pure joy, but that certainly wasn’t a reaction shared by all.
Sometimes it’s difficult to rekindle the difference in how an album was received at the time compared to how it’s appreciated now. But I clearly remember that ‘Spirit Of Eden’ felt positively shocking in 1988. Here was a major label band – who only a few years before had been filling the discothèques of Europe with uplifting pop anthems – releasing a suite of abstract, sometimes challenging, tone poems that seemed to channel much of the music of the 20th century. It sounded like it was being transmitted from some alternate version of history where instead of the divisions between rock, jazz, blues and classical becoming more rigid, they had lapsed altogether to create a single musical continuum.
Yet the genius of ‘Spirit Of Eden’ was not to act as a tasteful compendium of genre conventions. Yes, there are half-heard snatches of a myriad of artists – Can, Pink Floyd, Traffic, Miles Davis, John Martyn, Van Morrison, along with modern minimalist composers such as Arvo Pärt and Morton Feldman – but it’s the way in which Talk Talk took these influences to produce an album both tantalisingly familiar yet deliriously other that was their great leap forward. ‘Spirit Of Eden’ is Hollis’s attempt to manifest the perfect sounds in his head by using the unique ambience of the recording environment to create living, breathing music.
The album begins with “The Rainbow”, the brief cry of a mute trumpet heralding a distant vista of strings. It’s reminiscent of the expansive opening to Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’, but instead of evoking a blank desert landscape, we’re in lush, sun-dappled countryside, a prelapsarian vision of Eden itself. The skittering sound of a bicycle suggests a journey down some leafy lane, though the black crow wings of a distorted Variophon swoop threateningly overhead. The serene sound of an organ drifts towards us from the church up ahead, then there’s just the wind rustling under its eaves. Silence, a pause for breath, then a blindingly bright guitar riff and the harsh screech of a blues harp transport us into the main body of the song.
When Hollis starts to sing, it’s as though from another time – “Oh yeah, the world turned upside down” – his voice half-enraptured, half-asleep. The sound swells and swirls upwards to where a chorus should be, but instead, the song breaks down to just a simple, pensive piano phrase. On first listening, it seems odd that the track should lose its momentum in this way, but for Hollis, it makes perfect sense as an audible moment of reflection, a consideration as to where the music should go next. Hollis wants us to think about this, just as he’s thinking about it. Again, this breaking free of the tram lines of generic rock composition felt revolutionary in 1988.
As with all of the songs on this album, “The Rainbow” unfurls with its own dream-like logic – a piercing section of distorted harmonica followed by a meditative calm – before seguing seamlessly into “Eden”. The heartbeat thump of bass drum and guitar entwine together and build to a ragged crescendo, only to eject the listener into negative space, with just a tightly-tuned snare drum for company. The sound builds again for the chorus, Hollis’s voice riding atop a wave of organ, his declaration that “Everybody needs someone to live by” growing in passion, reaching out for something beyond mere love. It’s a raw, beautiful sound with a strong spiritual intensity, and when the guitar explodes in a clangourous climax, it’s clear that Hollis wants us to wake up and feel truly alive. It’s these blissful moments of unrestrained sound that animate the music – the way the string is hit, the natural reverb of the room, the intonation of the instrument… This is where music really lives, not in the symbols on a stave.
A distant violin and organ establish a more formal, ecclesiastical atmosphere, before a nagging guitar pulse announces the arrival of “Desire”. Hollis’s ‘less is more’ edict is particularly in evidence here, the sound of blues rock completely stripped back, as though the decades of lacquer and dirt on the face of an old master have been carefully chipped away to reveal the radiance and clarity of the original picture underneath. The air’s electric, then the chorus crashes in like a roll of thunder, Hollis channelling his inner rock god with a cry of “That ain’t me, babe!” The thrilling heaviness continues in the middle eight with a fantastic percussive breakdown underpinned by a mean Led Zeppelin-esque riff played to the point of total dissipation… It’s almost impossible to believe that this is the same band of a few years before.
The second half of ‘Spirit Of Eden’ may be more of a balm for the ears after the astonishing assault on the senses of side 1, but it’s no less inspired. “Inheritance” is a jazzy murmur punctuated by sparse piano and Hollis’s voice at its most tremulous, the brushed snare like the dragging feet of a sleepwalker. There’s a brilliant declamatory chorus, before a tangle of woodwind instruments creates a strange arrangement of sound that’s incredibly evocative of spooky 70s kids TV, a mysterious convocation of woodland animals and supernatural sprites.
This is followed by the measured pastoral groove of “I Believe In You”, which much to Hollis’s chagrin, and despite it being a sombre reflection on heroin addiction, was edited down and released as a single. It’s the most conventional of the album’s tracks (if ironically the only one without a discernible chorus), but must have seemed strikingly unglossy to mainstream radio audiences at the time. It ends with Hollis accompanied by the choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, their voices slowly fading into the ether, before “Wealth” returns us once more to a silence only tentatively broken by Hollis’s voice and acoustic guitar. The chorus is another soulful appeal, Hollis offering himself up to some higher power with a cry of “Take my freedom”, before the song slowly winds down like day gradually sliding into night, the lighting of votive candles, the church organ at evensong…
Looking back at contemporary reviews of ‘Spirit Of Eden’, there’s a general sense of mystification and sometimes outright hostility in the writing, as though the album represented some kind of affront to the maximalist, technocratic march of 80s pop. What these commentators didn’t realise was that, while Talk Talk had used the organic sounds of real instruments being played to make their album, ‘Spirit Of Eden’ represented an implicit rejection of both virtuosity for its own sake and the prevailing dogma at the time of ‘keep music live’: each song was in fact an impossible musical chimera, a patchwork assembly of phrases, solos and vamps – often accidents caught on tape – painstakingly stitched together over basic guide tracks. Far from being a retreat into the past, ‘Spirit Of Eden’ existed at the cutting edge of studio recording and digital editing technology.
Unfortunately, Talk Talk’s own label EMI were among the dissenting voices, even attempting to sue the band for delivering an album that was not “commercially satisfactory". But by this point, Talk Talk had already extricated themselves from their contract and signed to Polydor, with their first (and only) album for the label released on its Verve Records jazz imprint.
The bitterly-titled ‘Laughing Stock’ pushed even harder at the boundaries of songcraft and experimentation, while the recording studio itself was shrouded in darkness, the only illumination coming from candles and oil projectors. Designed to push the musicians into a timeless zone where the everyday ceased to exist, this environment produced an album that was half-post-apocalyptic, half-Utopian, with religious imagery more prominent than ever. ‘Laughing Stock’ has the reputation of being the more difficult of Talk Talk’s final two albums, but for me, it’s actually more accessible and less austere than ‘Spirit Of Eden’, even as it highlights Hollis’s cut-and-paste philosophy at its most sonically audacious. And for what it’s worth, it’s also my favourite album by any band, with something new and wonderful yielded every time I listen to it.
“Myrrhman” begins with the barely perceptible whirring of an amplifier fan, before a guitar awakens with a series of audible yawns and stretches, its tone warm and intimate over a skeletal backing of viola, double bass and piano. Hollis’s voice is mellow and rich, but his phrasing and emphasis is more impressionistic than ever, like a man slowly regaining consciousness to find himself washed ashore, shipwrecked on a desert island. The music drifts, the broken flotsam of his former vessel bobbing behind him in the surf. Yet there’s also a feeling of peace and calm as the song gradually concludes with the stately bowing of a cello.
The new morning in this alien land is greeted by the crisp snare shots and ride cymbal of “Ascension Day”, the bent notes of a serpentine guitar creating a sense of expectation. We’re not disappointed – there’s a sudden surge of molten noise, then Hollis takes centre stage, a swaggering preacher man declaiming the words of some cosmic hymn. The track swings with an extreme sense of joy that teeters on the brink of violence as Hollis thrashes the same guitar chord over and over again against a barrage of percussion, before the song abruptly cuts dead.
We catch our breath as “After The Flood” slowly fades up with the strange backwards coo of some exotic nightbird (possibly one of those perched in the leafless tree on the album’s sleeve). Again, the ticking of the ride and snare gently propel the song along, the mood of ‘Laughing Stock’ being less languorous than ‘Spirit Of Eden’ and more overtly evangelical. The verse is dominated by some fantastically soulful organ playing as Hollis’s vocals coil phonetically around the music, but it builds to a dramatic, angry chorus: “Shake my head, turn my face to the floor, dead to respect…” This sense of righteous fury is furthered by the incredible one note noise solo that follows courtesy of a broken Variophon, a squawking cacophony that challenges the listener to find the musicality within it.
“Taphead” returns to the blues as a site of primal meditation, Hollis nervously intoning his words over a minimal guitar sketch as though afraid of spoiling the holy atmosphere. What follows next is an amazing extended section where the song seems to become unmoored from reality, a mournful sprawl of trumpet, clarinet and harmonica played against a haunted guitar loop. It’s like an out-of-the-body experience that leaves the listener gazing down at the music in hypnotic detachment. Then with a sudden shriek, we’re back in the room with the original theme.
After “Taphead”’s disquieting vibe, “New Grass” is like waking up from a nightmare and feeling the sun on your face again. It’s an uplifting work of almost divine beauty based around a luminescent guitar line that ripples over the trance-like patter of cymbal and snare. Hollis is lost in reverie – “Lifted up, reflective in returning love you sing, errant days filled me…” – as guided by the sparest of piano chords and a weightless breakdown of high organ notes, the song rolls on towards transcendence.
And after that, where to but to bed? The guitar on “Rune II” is so closely mic’ed up that we can hear every creak of Hollis’s fingers on the fret board, and he sings as though soothing the listener to sleep. Full of pauses, heavy-lidded and narcoleptic, it’s like an ancient lullaby for the battle-weary, and perhaps fittingly, it would be the last piece of music that Talk Talk bequeathed to the world, their journey completed.
With ‘Laughing Stock’s release leading to further bemusement from the critics, Talk Talk quietly split up with hardly anyone noticing. Webb and Harris went on to record a pair of improvised, world music-influenced instrumental albums as .O.rang, while Hollis released an eponymous solo album in 1998 that in many ways formed the third – albeit more starkly minimalist – part of a trilogy. Met with little fanfare at the time, Hollis effectively retired from music and from talking to the media. Yet the reputation and legacy of these albums has grown enormously since then, with ‘Spirit Of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ now regarded as touchstones for any group looking to move beyond traditional modes of songwriting.
Then in 2012, an intriguing piece of news: a small section of new music from Hollis had been used in the US TV series ‘Boss’. It subsequently came to light that it had been taken from an unused soundtrack that Hollis had composed for the 2010 movie ‘Peacock’. Is it possible that Hollis is set to ‘do a Bowie’ and return unannounced to the contemporary music scene? If he were to do so, it would be to a far more receptive audience than the one he left behind. Hollis once said that, “Silence is the most powerful instrument I have” – but maybe it’s time for that silence to once again be broken.