Review Summary: The final artistic statement from the Talk Talk frontman follows his band’s legacy by deconstructing what made it work, and to that end succeeds in creating a new kind of magic.
The course of Talk Talk’s career was always one of transformation, but also of hesitation. Mark Hollis was a reluctant pop star, with the band ceasing to perform live after 1986 and charting a truly unmapped musical course in the process for the following five years. This commercial suicide made clear that the band would not last much longer, but simultaneously guaranteed an infinitely more impactful and meaningful legacy than that of a typical 80s pop band. This might not have been apparent in their early years, but hindsight can illuminate a clear path of where a watershed type band like The Beatles or Pink Floyd followed to what would become their defining artistic statement and legacy. The significance of Talk Talk is the unwavering artistic ambition and integrity that leads to greatness, and a frank dismissal of the music business and of what was expected from a popular group. To wholly embrace abstract textures, and practically forego musical structure altogether at times, is unheard of from any band that achieved the level of success that Talk Talk did early in their career. What this lead to was the logical culmination of that process, a singularly distinct work of art with an epic emotional impact, Laughing Stock
. The only sensical afterthought of such endeavors was a graceful exit, and like that, the band split.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. The band members collaborated with other musicians and formed a side project, the underrated neo-psychedelic tribal group .O.Rang. Hollis mostly remained out of the picture until dropping his first and only eponymous solo album in 1998: a sonic deconstruction of what made Talk Talk special while being a unique artistic statement in its own right. In a nutshell, Hollis created what appears on the surface to be a mellow singer-songwriter record without pretense. In the spirit of subversion however, the primary songwriter for Talk Talk more deeply created a record that seeks to break down the sound of his main band into its purest element. The louder aspects of their sound in tracks like “Desire,” “Ascension Day,” and the deliciously noisy solo in “After the Flood” are nowhere to be found. Dynamics are evolved into the subtlest displays possible at times, but much of Mark Hollis
is stripped down to just acoustic guitar or piano with his hushed singing voice. One of the most rewarding aspects of the album is how natural and assured it feels. There are virtually no electronics to be heard, with even the acoustics of the recording space integrated into the sound for an impressively atmospheric result.
Album opener “The Colour of Spring” introduces these qualities and distinguishes itself from any era of Talk Talk, with soaring vocals and piano that transitions from assurance to doubt, and back to assurance again. The lyrical themes continue to be primarily personal and spiritual in nature. They come across more grounded here however, to suit the intimate, pastoral nature of the arrangements. “Westward Bound” is a look to the horizon of possibilities, with the lyrics “Opaline through her hair, born on an April tide. Glowing in the wonder of our first child, there my promise is a spur, a rein
,” seeming to explore the awe and realization of responsibility one can feel in the presence of family. The brighter tone of the acoustic guitar is a contrast to the more unpredictable and serious tracks surrounding it. The gentler nature of Mark Hollis
illustrates more ease than the experimental final records of Talk Talk overall, while still conveying a range of moods as it goes along.
Even the most uptempo pieces like “The Gift” and “The Daily Planet” blissfully glide along more meditatively than the louder epics of the previous band. Their occasionally mischievous side is never conjured up in Mark Hollis
, instead existing in a more minimalistic nature, yet still wholly engrossing and multi-dimensional throughout. The album’s centerpiece, “A Life (1895 - 1915)” unfolds beautifully and contrasts the change of patriotism to disillusionment felt during the stages of war with the various changes in mood a song can have. It begins with various woodwind melodies and what sounds like a sustained organ note. The piece introduces a mysterious piano line and soft vocals before breaking down into more woodwind melodies, then continues on to further musical realms and tempo changes. Despite the more peaceful sounds, Mark Hollis
is nothing if not surprising and captivating.
The question of Mark Hollis
living up to the genius of Talk Talk is irrelevant, as it embodies just as much spirit of adventure and liveliness while possessing an air of finality to it. There was no quieter that Hollis’ brand of music could get than this, nowhere else it could logically go. All manner of styles are traversed here, from folk, ambient, chamber pop, classical, jazz, the ambitious post-rock that Talk Talk invented, and an emotional resonance that comes from a place of wisdom and creativity few others possess. Mark Hollis
is a fittingly gorgeous and contemplative record that remains a lesser known and appreciated coda to Hollis’ legacy, as well as a glimpse into the essence of what Talk Talk were all about. His philosophy of less is more, that the only notes that should be played are the ones that have a purpose, even if it’s just one, is embodied in Mark Hollis
. The man lived what he believed, and left us one incredible legacy to appreciate and understand as a whole. It’s a mark of true genius and virtue to subvert expectations and reinvent the wheel in such a radical way that Hollis and the rest of Talk Talk did. They could have taken an easy route, but instead chose to share their magic and change the history of music as a result, even if at one time it must have felt like it would blow up in their faces. Hollis decided to bow out when he felt it was right, primarily to spend time with family and allow his art to speak for itself and inspire others from the process. If that isn’t a perfect music career and artist’s life lead, I don’t know what is.
RIP Mark Hollis (1955-2019)