It has been nearly three years since Talk Talk fans were met with the sad news that singer and artistic lead, Mark Hollis, had died aged 64. Hollis hadn’t been active since the release of his self-titled solo album in 1998 as he opted to remain out of the limelight to spend more time with his family in Wimbledon. Despite remaining silent for so many years, his distinctive voice can still be heard from time to time on the radio, usually belting out one of his more commercial 1980s synth-pop hits like ‘Today’ or ‘It’s My Life’.
At a glance, Talk Talk could be filed away in the drawer of ’80s new romantic pop music, but this would be unfairly dismissive. The band was this and much more thanks to Hollis’ meticulous and relentless creativity. Hitting the London scene hard in 1982, Talk Talk fit the bill with a sound on trend with the times but with the grace of Hollis’ fragile and nasal, yet affable voice adding character and identity to the music.
They evolved through the 1980s with each album bringing a more refined sound with increasing attention to detail. The release of The Colour of Spring in 1986 was a key turning point in the band’s development. The album has a more complex composition with the inclusion of more instruments and varying sound densities across the tracks. Among the punchier hits on the album were some slower, more ambient songs such as ‘Chameleon Day’ and ‘April 5th’. It was these songs that Hollis appeared to be swooning towards when looking to build upon this newfound post-rock sound in the band’s fifth album, Spirit of Eden.
With the arrival of Spirit of Eden in 1988, the band had produced what Hollis described as a perfect example of the music they would ideally make. With money in their pockets and time on their side, they could put thoughts of commerce to the back of their heads and focus on the music. In another step for the band’s evolution, they had stripped away the elements of pop and what remained was an elegant beauty. The high production value and Hollis’ enrapturing croons made for a very satisfying listen. Spirit of Eden was not half as commercially successful as The Colour of Spring, but was no less important; with many regarding it as Talk Talk’s finest album.
After three years of hard work, Talk Talk released their fifth and final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. This is the Talk Talk LP that Hollis seemed most content with. In an interview with the BBC shortly after its release, Hollis explained that every album they released was better than the last in their eyes because if it wasn’t, they would still be in the studio making it.
The album begins with ‘Myrrhman’, a song that Hollis identified as the albums most eclectic and the perfect song to kick off proceedings. He described the disjointed drum rhythm and the slow convergence of instrumentals with pride: “It sounds like the bloke’s putting his kit together throughout the track”. Hollis explained how the song is integral to the album as a whole because it “creates a mood from which it then develops from”. The slow start to ‘Myrrhman’ allows a platform from which to build pace and volume sparingly with the use of silence throughout; this silence was clearly important to Hollis as he jovially explained: “I would rather hear one note than two, and I’d rather hear silence than I would one note”.
The rest of the album moves through new moods and themes created by careful selection and assembly from reels upon reels of recordings taken during interminable studio sessions. The group brought in a number of talented musicians to add texture to the album to produce a unique sound with close relations to jazz (as much as the group would object to that categorisation). The use of long, drawn-out instrumental sections, with the all-important nuggets of silence, give the album its trademark sound. In ‘After the Flood’ the use of a simple, yet effective saxophone solo consisting of only one repeated note adds a warm candour to the song. Hollis described the solo as one of the best they had come up with: “It’s only one note, but you feel that note”.
Hollis reflected that when choosing who to work with, “feeling was always above technique” – while talent was of course important, the group always felt a need for a deeper connection of understanding and friendship. This allowed them the chemistry to produce an album as honest as Bob Dylan’s New Morning, an album Hollis praised as a huge influence on Laughing Stock. As Hollis put it: “You can’t get much more honest than that [album]”.
Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden are most certainly albums that were intended for audiophiles; this latter phase of Talk Talk’s music is, in Hollis’ words, the sort of music you “need to sit down and listen [to]”. I will go one further and say the true experience should be optimised with a clean record spun on a first-rate hi-fi system at full volume with a glass of wine and no further distraction. But a Bluetooth speaker and a calm room void of noisy children and pets should suffice to have 43 minutes of bliss as you push pause on life and play this delicate work of art.