Mark Hollis was the main driving force behind Talk Talk, a band that developed from a successful synth-pop band of the early Eighties into a forward-looking avant-garde post rock band with the magnificent “Spirit Of Eden” (1988) and “Laughing Stock” (1991). After the band split, seven years elapsed before Mark Hollis released his only solo album in 1998. He released no further albums before his death in 2019, aged 64.
Never having learned how to play an instrument, it’s fascinating for me to find out how musicians regard music. What purpose does it serve? What is the relationship between the functional zone of a musician who plays an instrument and the soulful creator who feels the music surfacing from within him or her? Is the music a means of expressing oneself? Does an artist’s combined body of work represent a journey to enlightenment? According to Mark Hollis, creating music is a cinematic experience. “Music works in lots of different ways. As much as you want stuff you can have a riot to, you also want stuff where you can close your eyes and visually journey. I don’t see it as a mental journey where you find out more about yourself. I see it more that you create a film in your head that takes you somewhere.”
“Mark Hollis” consists of eight songs and the album lasts just over 46 minutes. The first song, “The Colour Of Spring” has the same name of the Talk Talk album before “Spirit Of Eden”. It is a hauntingly beautiful song with just Mark Hollis’ falsetto and Lawrence Pendrous’ piano playing. It couldn’t really be possible for any song to have a slower tempo. The lyrics include this line “I’ll gaze at the colour of spring; immerse in that one moment, left in love with everything”. The words to Mark Hollis’ songs are not as important as the sound that they make and I think this is the reason why everything on this album sounds so wonderful. “It’s not what you sing but the way that you sing it. The lyric is always last. The inflection and the phonetics must come first. The importance of the lyric is that in order to sing the thing properly, you’ve got to mentally get yourself into what the subject is about. The lyric is extremely important in a performance point of view, but it’s of secondary importance to the whole.” I won’t attempt to interpret the lyrics to “The Colour Of Spring” except to say that there appears to be a combination of love, rejection, glory and bewilderment which enhances the power of the music.
The longest track on the album is the first song on Side Two, called “A Life (1895-1915)”, lasting for over eight minutes and comprising just 16 words. Much of the track is instrumental but the pace is beautifully slow and languid. The arrangement is complex, with flute, cor anglais, clarinet and trumpet playing a discordant opening sequence. As with most of his work, playing less is more. “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” As his soulful voice begins to sing, the instrumentation quietens and occasionally disappears completely. Lawrence Pendrous’ piano playing is empathetic and repetitive and some wordless chanting is introduced which increases in volume and intensity. The song is about “someone born before the turn of the century and dying within one year of the First World War at a young age. It was based on Vera Brittan’s boyfriend. It’s the expectation that must have been in existence at the turn of the century, the patriotism that must have existed at the start of the war and the disillusionment that must have come immediately afterwards. It’s the very severe mood swings that fascinated me”. Some syncopated percussion noises intrude before a slow and steady decline in the intensity of the song leaves just Mark Hollis’ voice, alone in an empty space.
Mark Hollis never sounds particularly happy. In fact, he sounds tortured on most of the tracks that I love. The recording sessions for “Spirit Of Eden” were, reportedly, dark and claustrophobic; however, engineer Phill Brown described the recording of “Mark Hollis as “open, restful and at times fantastically beautiful“. Nevertheless there is a chilling comment in the previous quote – the part where Mark Hollis says that severe mood swings fascinate him. Another singer who often appears to be performing from the depths of hell is Robert Smith, of The Cure, and two years before “Mark Hollis” was released, The Cure released an album called “Wild Mood Swings”. Wild or severe or wild mood swings don’t sound like they are going to lead to a happy and contented life for the artist, but they may well provide fulfilling musical experiences for the listener.
The process of recording great music fascinates me. How much does a band rehearse and how much is improvised? “When you improvise, and you play something for the first time, you kind of play it at it’s peak. And if you kind of like play something and then you think “oh I like that” and then you replay it, you never quite get it. It’s like the thing of demoing, y’know if you demo a track, no matter how badly you try to demo it, there will always be a quality within it that you subsequently would try to recreate, which you shouldn’t do.” Sometimes a first take is messy – that much is clear from comparing the performances in Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” film with the performances in “Get Back – Rooftop Performance”. On the other hand, sometimes the magic is in the first take, such as “A Sailor’s Life” on “Unhalfbricking“, “Mother Country” on “California Bloodlines” or “Nobody Knows My Name” on “The Sermon On Exposition Boulevard“. “Westward Bound” sounds like a first take and it only consists Mark Hollis’ vocals and acoustic guitar playing which, to this untrained ear, sounds a little like some of the unique style of Nick Drake on “Five Leaves Left“.
The photo on the cover of the album is of Italian “Easter bread” designed to resemble the “Lamb of God” (a title for Jesus that appears in the Gospel Of St. John). “I like the way something appears to come out of his head; 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“. Once again, Mark Hollis describes feeling two conflicting emotions simultaneously. He laughed and felt the picture was tragic at the same time. Severe mood swings indeed.
The whole album benefits from listening to it with the headphones on, in a darkened room, with the volume on low. “Ideally, the way to listen to it is alone, extremely quietly. I don’t think you should ever push the volume level beyond the natural volume that the instruments would have been in the room.”
The first 18 seconds and the last 100 seconds of the album are completely silent. There’s a background noise which is the perfect accompaniment to anticipation and reflection “I like silence. I get on great with silence, you know. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just silent, y’know. So it’s kind of like well if you’re going to break into it, just try and have a reason for doing it.”
There is no other music like “Spirit Of Eden”, “Laughing Stock” and “Mark Hollis”. Trying to describe the sounds as “post-rock”, “folk”, “post-folk”, “folk-jazz”, “post-jazz” or even “post folk-rock jazz” serves no purpose. Think about the unique sound of “Astral Weeks“, “()” , “Ys” or “Smile” and you have an idea of the difficulty in describing such an idiosyncratic achievement. “I try and make an album that is unique. To try and make an album that is outside the period in which it’s written or recorded”.
Some of the quotes are taken from this great transcript by “Dervswerve” of a Mark Hollis interview with Danish TV in 1998.