I’m sitting in a coffee shop and it is raining. The counter is busy, and the hiss of steam and the shuffle of feet soundtracks the movements of the barista, who anxiously rushes back and forth between the espresso machine and the next person. The tea I hold in my hand is too hot to drink, so I place it gently on the wooden table to my right, turning my head to face the window just beside me.
The street outside the window is filled with cars, big ones with single people in the driver seat looking smug or miserable or a little bit of both. I am distracted by the droplets of rain joining and diverging on the window’s surface, tracing patterned lines upon the glass. Suddenly a familiar song comes on the speakers – It’s a track from Talk Talk’s album “The Colour of Spring.” The piano notes of “April 5th” sprinkle memories into my ears, which flow into my consciousness like gentle waves on the ocean. Though I was just about to pack up my stuff, I sit back deeply into the chair and close my eyes, letting myself drift away into the song for a moment.
“April 5th,” in many ways, was an overt signal of what was to come next for the band Talk Talk: Pensive, spacious, and reverent, it could easily have been a track on either of their next two albums, recordings that would cement their legend as experimental pioneers in new frontiers of rock sound. Where other songs on “The Colour of Spring” are pulsing and intense, such as the hit “Life’s What You Make It,” “April 5th” rests on a bed of silence, its shuffling rhythm gently tumbling in the background. Then there are the lyrics, which read more like an elegiac poem from the nineteenth century than a pop song from the mid 1980s.
“Come wanton spring
Come for birth you live
Youth takes its bow before the summer the seasons bring
Waiting for the colour of spring”
The song makes you feel as if you are a new acolyte, a supplicant who can hear Mark’s voice rising out of the silence, from the great mystery itself, trying to tell us something. The sense of spring, of seasons changing in the snow melt and vibrant green growth, is a theme that would wind through his work like a wild river gently snaking toward the ocean. “Let me breathe / Let me breathe you” Hollis repeats at song’s end, asking for that spiritual solace that so many poets have looked for in nature. Lyrics like this are the reason so many artists have flocked to Hollis’s music. In the early 90s Talk Talk’s music would be instrumental in forming a sound that would be called post-rock, music that in its beginning had more in common with religious chants, classical music, and ambient textures than the new wave synth-pop and glossed-over rock ‘n’ roll that dominated the charts.
It’s been almost five months now since Mark Hollis passed away, and his presence has already left a considerable hole in the music world. The hole was already there before his passing, widened by his silent retreat from the industry in 1991, and made permanent by his retirement from music after his 1998 self-titled solo album. I didn’t know the man and couldn’t hope to ever see a reunion tour of Talk Talk shows (the idea itself seems heresy), but his music touched me deeply. I will never forget the first time I heard “Spirit of Eden,” like I won’t forget my first kiss or my first hike above treeline. It reached down into a place I didn’t know existed, tugged at fibers of longing and desire, and helped me understand more of what was inside of me.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Hollis did what famous musicians almost never do. He took his popular band – which was coming off of three fairly successful albums as well as a big international hit with “It’s My Life” – and a big budget and went off on a tangential experiment in minimal art rock, a period which would produce “Spirit of Eden,” a sea change in tone and feeling from the band’s earlier work. The album was and continues to be critically acclaimed, a fact that didn’t stop Talk Talk’s label, EMI, from suing the band for making something commercially stagnant. After that the band would switch to the Polydor label and release “Laughing Stock,” which was even darker and more impenetrable than “Eden.”
This was not totally unexpected from Hollis, who even in his synth-pop days had a vibrant disdain for the trappings of the music industry. The story of him refusing to lip sync for the “It’s My Life” video has become something of a music industry legend. Even now, decades later, many musicians cite Hollis as being a prime example of artist against establishment, of one man refusing to sacrifice his artistic integrity under the pressure of commercial interests.
Following the 1991 release of “Laughing Stock” on Polydor, Talk Talk would break up, with Hollis saying he wanted to spend more time with family. Seven years later a self-titled solo album would appear, a record which AllMusic would call “quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made.” In an increasingly loud and overwhelming world, “Mark Hollis” is quite the revelation to listen to. Over layers of microphone hiss ever present across the record, Hollis alternates between trembling vibrato and barely audible whispers, the silence permeable between waves of acoustic guitar, golden piano chords, and the occasional soft entrance of rhythm. It was the continuation of “Laughing Stock,” an album with a starkness that made “Spirit of Eden” seem like a pop record.
After living a certain amount of life, we all learn how complicated humans are. Our emotions, our hang-ups, our fears and our hopes all circulate mysteriously inside of us, emerging at inopportune times or causing us unresolvable pain. Hollis understood this, more than many singers. His song “I Believe in You” coped with heroin addiction, especially his brother’s struggle with the drug that was wreaking havoc on the London streets. Then there was “Wealth,” where he sang “Take my freedom / for giving me a sacred love.” Hollis’s vocal delivery at that point sounded more like praying than singing, suggesting he was looking for something deeper and more eternal than the temporary exhilaration of a pop song.
More than anything, Mark Hollis understood the importance of silence and reflection. In an age of material excess and vapid pop songs, he shifted his incredibly popular band into making what was unmistakably religious music. He crafted tunes that spoke of supplication and worship before nature and all of creation. He stripped his songs of catchy solos and dance rhythms in favor of quiet meditative moments, a place where songs seemed to pivot and tremble on a single note, a note that seemed to hold all the wonder and glory of the entire universe inside of it.
What can we learn from silence? What can we glean from putting a hold on our constant movement, our frantic search for excitement and novelty? When “Spirit of Eden” came out in 1988, there simply was no mainstream precedent for this kind of music. Pop music was loud and getting louder, and as recording technology progressed the arrangements were getting busier and glossier. Talk Talk truly stood alone at that time, bringing in elements of John Cage and Miles Davis as they ruminated like romantic poets and let their instruments fade away into the looming silence that each song curated. You had to listen closely to appreciate every track; had to train your mind to pay attention.
But this sort of insight can’t be explained, can’t be digested and divulged in an article about music. It has to be experienced, felt through each movement of a song inside of an album like “Spirit of Eden,” which cycles through titles such as “Desire,” “Inheritance,” and “Wealth.” These are prayers, which you sit with in silence, letting them soak through your entire body.
“I Believe in You,” if you allow yourself to slow down and be with it, is possibly one of the most spiritually yearning songs ever written. The song is sprung open by the wide open heart of a beat that refuses to stop, the trembling delivery of Hollis’s voice, the texture of the organ as it cycles through chord changes, and the boy’s choir that rings inside the cavernous interior of a great cathedral. “Spirit / How long?” Hollis repeats at song’s end in a final plea to and elegy for his ailing brother who died the same month the song was released.
Hollis was our high priest of silence, and now he has left us and gone into that larger and more mysterious silence. Like a whisper barely audible above the murmur of the world, he let his life fall deeply into that silence, which to him was perhaps richer and more fruitful than the loudness we are so obsessed with. His silence over the last few decades of his career were like his final album, pushing, prodding us to look deeper inside of us and find out what that silence can teach us. True quiet has somehow become rare in today’s world, now even more so now that its most patient acolyte has passed away.