Reflections on Mark Hollis and Talk Talk
Mark Hollis never set out to invent a genre, or revolutionize the album as a standalone work of art. The legendary English sound artist, the helmsman behind Talk Talk and a single revelatory solo album, passed away Monday at age sixty-four, surely still as humble as ever about the groundbreaking, life-altering works he authored between the early eighties and the late nineties.
Hollis seemed to supernaturally materialize from nowhere in the late seventies, with scant details known about his Tottenham childhood. After a brief foray into punk with The Reaction, he co-founded Talk Talk in 1981. The group released a pair of well-received, synth-heavy pop albums, even grazing the American charts with the popular single “It’s My Life”. With their third album, The Colour Of Spring, a restless and inspired Hollis sought to push the envelope, experimenting with unusual textures and song structures, with a new focus on the studio as the primary instrument of songcraft.
What resulted next is a glorious pair of releases, two albums that cemented Hollis’ legacy as an intuitive sonic genius. Spirit Of Eden’s lush and haunting noisescapes stood well ahead of their time upon release in 1988, the album now widely considered one of the greatest ever made. The followup, 1991’s stunning Laughing Stock, largely laid the groundwork for the much-celebrated genre of post-rock, with lengthy and disorienting soundscapes and a focus on instrumentation as much as, if not more than, vocals.
Hollis must have known that he had achieved something incredible and unprecedented – soon after, he disbanded Talk Talk and largely retired from public life to focus on his family, though his lone self-titled solo album, released in 1998, was well enough to make us pine for his return, and hope that there might be further classics to come, a hope that his passing has dashed.
Mark Hollis was an artist as uncompromising as he was visionary, a man who shunned commercial success for the chance to carve out a lasting statement, and his seclusion following his breakthrough works seems of a piece with a man who treasured private life, a mysterious sense of vagueness in person as in art. He crafted challenging, breath-taking albums, and chose to walk away on his own terms well before aging ungracefully, a commendable restraint in a musical landscape littered with so many antiquated heroes tottering along as rusty, hollow shells of their former world-beating selves. What makes latter-day Talk Talk so astonishing is simplicity – the gaps between the notes are given as much reverence as the sounds themselves, a landscape forming out of their absence, a photograph conjured from expansive blankness.
Hollis’ works remain a celebration of the nature of sound itself, and of the daring magic of intuitive collaboration. Magpie-like, these songs snatch jazz fusion, ambient and classical music from the void and will them into something bigger. It’s akin to a mural of contemporary soundscapes that feels like its own universe every time you turn it on, a weather pattern on an isolated continent. You don’t merely listen to Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock, you let them envelope you, swallow you whole, in thrall to the album’s curious whims and exploratory avenues until the final fade.
It’s a minimalism that never feels minimal, and while these albums’ status as the origin point of post-rock is arguable, one cannot debate the audible impact these works have had on so many ensuing sonic adventurers, from the woozy throb of My Bloody Valentine to the stately martial darkness of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, from the laid-back groove-math of Tortoise to the symphonic grandeur of prime Radiohead. Talk Talk remains their collective wellspring.
What Hollis contributed in art feels less like some narcissistic personal vision and more of a gift, a balm, a spiritual salve that we can comfortably apply in such times of free-floating terror and anxiety as ours. For that alone, we should be profoundly grateful. And not just for his work, but the promise of an era he represented, now long lost to shallow poptimism and obedient data-streaming hordes. We may never again see a talent like Mark Hollis, or dare to encourage one if they did arrive on scene. This is a fading snapshot, a golden age of sound kept with us forever through these spectral, stirring chords.