Ignore that date up there. It’s taken me almost a week longer than usual to get it together enough to write this one. Which means I’ve had almost a week to mull on the death of Mark Hollis.
I like to think Hollis would appreciate the disconnect between the dates, as if this column in his honor exists out of time. That’s the best description I have of his music: it feels out of time, so much so that listening to it, for me, makes the lightspeed whir of daily life just… stop. Like a still frame of the most beautiful, quiet vista you can imagine, waiting for unpause, patiently, unhurriedly. Hollis not only made beautiful music, he made music that all but forces you to breathe more slowly and appreciate how beautiful everything else is.
I honestly cannot remember the first time I heard Talk Talk. I knew enough about them to recognize Tim Friese-Greene, Hollis’ organ-playing partner in Talk Talk, when he showed up on Catherine Wheel’s amazing Chrome album in 1993. But I cannot point to a day or an hour when the impossible beauty of the band’s final two records, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, took hold of my life. They sort of creeped up in there and wrapped themselves around whatever part of my soul most deeply responds to beauty. Again, out of time.
All I can tell you is that they live there now, and have for many years. Talk Talk began life as a synth-pop band – you may know their biggest U.S. hit, “It’s My Life,” which No Doubt covered in 2003. The band’s moniker, chosen after the name of their first single, stuck even as the band changed dramatically, following Hollis on his particular (and particularly unmarketable) quest. I almost feel bad for EMI Records, who signed on for big-haired ‘80s anthems and, by the end, were confronted with Spirit of Eden, perhaps the least immediate major label album ever made.
The music itself, which I think I have to work up to talking about, is only one of the reasons I admire Hollis and count him among my heroes. It’s easier to talk about another of those reasons, the way he conducted his career. I’m not sure what switch flipped in Hollis’ head around 1985, but beginning with 1986’s terrific The Colour of Spring, Hollis deftly moved Talk Talk away from the radio-ready material he had been creating and toward magnificence. From this moment on, he would simply refuse to make the music others wanted him to make.
That’s not to say that the first two Talk Talk albums are without merit. They’re deeper and more interesting than most of what you would have found on the radio in 1982 and 1984. But they are still immediately recognizable as product-of-their-times pop, and with The Colour of Spring, Hollis began warping that music around him, turning it utterly unique. His voice, a powerful and booming thing, took on fewer and fewer big choruses, and the music began to incorporate more chamber and jazz influences. But they’re influences only: the trumpets and clarinets on “Happiness is Easy” are so outside the realm of what other pop musicians might use those instruments for.
On the strength of single “Life’s What You Make It,” Coloursold well, and Hollis took EMI’s money and hunkered down for a year to make 1988’s Spirit of Eden. One imagines it is exactly the album he wanted to make. One also imagines that EMI was utterly aghast when they heard it. Nine-minute opener “The Rainbow” begins with two minutes of formless atmosphere before Hollis’ ringing guitar cuts in, and even then, to say that this song “takes off” would be a lie. Spirit of Eden is one of the most patient records I have ever heard outside of pure ambient music, intently focused on the mood to the point where any change, no matter how slight, is monumental.
This one got Talk Talk kicked off of their label, and some artists might take that as a sign to change things up, to do again what worked before. Not Mark Hollis, who then made one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard, 1991’s Laughing Stock. Everything that Eden was, this one is more. It is quieter, it is more patient, it is even less concerned with whether anyone but its creator likes it. Even Hollis’ distinctive voice is more whispered, more focused on furthering the spell than on calling attention to itself. It’s a masterpiece. I’ve been listening to it for more than 20 years, and it still cocoons me each time, transporting me to a different world, revealing new wonders.
OK, I guess I am talking about the music, and how it makes me feel. So let’s do that: Laughing Stock makes me feel like nothing else I have ever heard. I have every contour of this thing memorized, and it has taken all of the time I have put into it to bring me even to the meager understanding of it I have. All I can tell you is that when the driving syncopated guitar kicks in on “Ascension Day,” or when everything else but the pitter-patter drum beat drops out and the piano chords ring out like sunlight on “New Grass,” my heart moves. Almost literally, it feels like my heart moves.
I can trace the patterns from the last two Talk Talk albums to so many of the artists I love most, from Marillion to Elbow to Shearwater to anyone making slowly unfolding post-rock. Heck, The Choir’s song “Circle Slide” uses Talk Talk’s “The Rainbow” as a blueprint, to gorgeous effect. These albums aren’t talked about much, but I hear their influence everywhere. Nothing sounds quite like them, though, especially Laughing Stock. I am listening to it right now and I am finding it hard to write words. Any words.
Laughing Stock was the end of Talk Talk. Their proposed sixth album, once called Mountains on the Moon, morphed into Mark Hollis’ one self-titled solo album, issued in 1998. It is even quieter, even less present, than Talk Talk at its most reticent. I’ve heard it said that Hollis’ style was one of appreciating silence, of building songs in rooms too large for them and pointing out all the unused space. The music on Mark Hollis takes up almost no space in the largest room Hollis ever worked in. If you listen to all of his work back to back, he almost disappears before your ears.
Which brings me to one of the things I admired most about him: he did, in fact, disappear. Shortly after issuing his solo album, Hollis decided he was done with the music industry and simply faded from view for the next 20 years. I’ve seen this called a “mysterious absence,” but there’s nothing mysterious about it: Hollis has told us why. “I choose for my family,” he said. “Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can’t go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”
And he stuck to it. No reunion tours, no cash-grab anniversary shows, nothing. Man, is that admirable. He decided to stop, and he stopped. In doing so, he taught me that musicians don’t owe us anything. I would have loved another ten Hollis solo albums, but I love even more the idea that he lived his final years as the person he wanted to be. That, I think, is the lesson I learned from the life of Mark Hollis: be who you are, no matter what. I’m nowhere near as good at it as he was, but I’m trying.
Mark Hollis died on Monday, Feb. 25, at the too-young age of 64. He had been battling an illness for a short while, and never recovered from it. In very Mark Hollis fashion, his death couldn’t be confirmed for a full day. But news of his passing led to dozens of tributes from the musicians he inspired, and reading those has been heartwarming.
As for me, I’ve been listening to Talk Talk almost non-stop, and working through a complicated sadness. Here’s where I’ve landed: I am grateful. I’m grateful for the incredible, life-changing music Hollis gifted to us, and grateful that he ended his career on his own terms and lived out his life as he chose. Life’s what you make it, the wise man once said, and Mark Hollis lived those words.
Rest in peace.
Next week, something that doesn’t have anything to do with death, I hope. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.