Remembering Mark Hollis of Talk Talk

The singer of “It’s My Life” left us a brilliant solo album, then chose to be a family man.

Songwriter and Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis died in late February. He was 64. I would love to say that I knew the man’s work beyond the 1984 synth-laden hit “It’s My Life,” but like many people, that was not the case. Knowing how much extraordinary music is available to audiophiles, as yet unheard, can be a concern as much as a comfort. It’s wonderful when a new star appears in your musical horizon, but how many are yet to be seen? Anyway, it’s doubly sad when an artist’s death is what leads you to marvelous art.

I’ve spent the last week remedying the situation, listening to Talk Talk’s phenomenal last two albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. But it’s in writing about Mark Hollis’ only solo album that I choose to appreciate his legacy.

In retrospect, the 1998 album Mark Hollis was a final musical statement. It sounds like one anyway. Hollis used it to continue deconstructing the pop form that made him famous. If we give ourselves over to the album as a listener, we become travelers through its emotional topography, ultimately arriving at our preordained destination. Mark Hollis is a record of transition. Not transitional, moving from one form of expression to another, but rather describing a transition out of a state of being. At the time of the album’s release, Hollis was a father, and in interviews prioritized his familial, not professional, life. This is the record where that change takes place.

There’s been some talk about Hollis and his former band pioneering “post rock,” once a couple hit records freed him from financial constraints. Since music genres tend to be a critic’s constraint as much as a descriptor, I feel neither qualified nor motivated to talk about which musical basket is best to contain them. Talk Talk certainly made a remarkable, if unsellable, album with Spirit of Eden—an unusual use of a record label’s blank check—and then promptly stopped touring. Laughing Stock was fruit from the same orchard, and marked the close of the band’s career. The two albums certainly defied expectation, even as they pointed to a new form of expression.

Similarly, Mark Hollis is often beyond category: “The Colour of Spring” has a lyric piano which embodies composer Erik Satie’s simple melodicism; “Watershed”s muted trumpet and tubby string bass are an analog of the modal jazz of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue; the muttering woodwinds in “A Life (1895-1915)”—expressing themselves like intrusive thoughts—are reminiscent of Robert Wyatt’s 1974 progressive masterpiece Rock Bottom; and the asymmetrical drumming on “The Gift” predicts the polyrhythms of David Bowie’s swansong Blackstar.

Mark Hollis is delicate but durable, beguiling without needing to be catchy, sparse but harmonically dense, and occasionally dissonant even though it’s mostly unamplified. “The minute you work with just acoustic instruments,” Hollis said in a rare interview about the record, “by virtue of the fact that they’ve already existed for hundreds of years, they can’t date.”

“I wanted to make a record where you can’t hear when it has been made,” he said elsewhere.

The music on the album is intertwined with silence. It is powerful in its quietude. It starts with silence, then ambient sound of the outside world. The first note isn’t played for 20 seconds. Hollis sings, but not in the forward, mixed-loud way of a decade before: “[A]t times,” he said, “the voice is little more than a thin parting of the air in the studio; the words are stretched out, torn apart, boiled down to consonant acoustics.” What he sings are tone poems. The lyrics are imagistic, sparse. “Forget our fate,” he begins.

The pedlar sings

Set up to sell my soul

I’ve lived a life of wealth to bring

And yet I’ll gaze

The colour of spring

Immerse in that one moment

Left in love with everything

“We only used two microphones,” Hollis explained about the album’s production. “We searched a long time to find the right balance. We placed the musicians in different locations—that’s the way the sound and the resonance are built up. Recording in its purest form, really, like in the old days. To me the ultimate ambition is to make music that doesn’t have a use-by date, that goes beyond your own time.”

Hollis is referring to the way music was recorded before the advent of magnetic tape, which would allow for overdubbing, or recording other parts later on the same track. For the first half of the 20th century, songs and albums were cut “live,” with the full band playing for the entire take. No one could go back and add a part, since the performances were being committed to a wax cylinder or cut to a master disc. In many ways, these limitations are salutary: the musicians must play together, blending their dynamics. Once the “balance mix” was achieved—that is, the relative distance of instruments from the microphone, the loudest placed farther away—all that was left was the performance.

There’s another effect available only through a live recording with minimal miking: the listener is put into a physical space. Unlike a compilation of close-miked instruments arranged together to make a song, the contours of the room are communicated in a live recording. Listen to an old Louis Armstrong song. You can hear the room on his trumpet because his volume kept him away from the microphone. Hollis used this technique as well. It doesn’t just sound like a group of musicians playing together; it puts the listener in the space in which the music is being made. We are not so much hearing Mark Hollis as witnessing it.

“You’ve got the whole geography of sound within which all the instruments exist,” he said about the album. “If you listen hard enough, you can actually hear where my head’s moving in position as I’m singing. Because it does exist in a real room space.”

The cover of Mark Hollis is a photograph of a Sardinian Easter bread made to represent the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. “I like the way something appears to come out of his head,” Hollis told a Dutch interviewer in 1998. “It makes me think of a fountain of ideas. Also the manner how the eyes are positioned fascinates me. When I saw the picture for the first time I had to laugh, but there’s something very tragic about it at the same time.”  

“Behold the Lamb of God,” the apostle John said of Jesus, “which taketh away the sin of the world.” In the New Testament, Christ made himself a blood sacrifice to God—becoming the new Paschal Lamb—expiating the sins of future generations. Without lugging in the theological baggage, I think Hollis is making a similar offering on his self-titled album: sacrificing his pop star identity. “Come my love,” he sings on ‘Watershed,’ kick the line.”

Afield lies nothing but squalor to turn on

A song asale

Should have said so much

Makes it harder

The more you love

Gladdening eyes

Through slur

Emerge crucified

Hollis granted a few interviews to promote his solo album, but refused to tour in support of it. “There won’t be any gig,” he said, “not even at home in the living room. This material isn’t suited to play live. And I choose my family. Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”

Westward Bound” points in this direction.

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

 

 

Migrate

Job on the threshing line

Mute i walk

Idle ground

Westward bound

Pop stardom provides many wonders, but it demands much. Making more successful albums brings increased pressure to be even more successful. Getting better at touring only keeps you on the road. There’s an inherent rootlessness in belonging to the world. Mark Hollis gave us his last public statement, and then went to live the last two decades of his life as a husband and father. He made a choice that was right for him, even if it wasn’t the choice some of his fans wanted. What we are left with is Mark Hollis.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel