Yesterday’s Favourite: A Personal Tribute. Mark Hollis 1955-2019

“Silence is the most important thing you have. One note is better than two. Spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.” – Mark Hollis, 1991. 

It almost skitters into life.

That big, bouncing, driving bassline. The two synth lines, calling to each other, birdsong, nature in widescreen. You immerse immediately, like sliding into a warm lagoon. Then it arrives. There. The sheer genius of the man. Those rising tenor notes, a vocal melody straight from a celestial cwtch, delayed by four beats for maximum did-ya-miss-me impact; in he swoops to pick you up and carry you away, with an opening line of sheer simplistic, perfect, wonderment:

“Funny how I find myself… in love with you”.

That pause, as in much of the man’s finest work is where he leaves you pondering. With which meaning do you want to imbue those words? In which sense do we find ourselves through that fundamental human emotion of love? Or are we merely a passenger taken unwittingly to that same destination. Mark Hollis asked me those questions when I first heard “It’s My Life”, perhaps still the signature tune of Talk Talk, the project he fronted until the early 1990s. Thirty-odd years later, I’m still marvelling.

Mark Hollis was confirmed dead last week, following a short illness. It was one of those kicks in the stomach that happens now and then, when the time comes for a creator of great musical vision to move on. The kind of moment that leads you to message your friends, with an irony Hollis himself would no doubt have appreciated, “have you heard the news”?

With hindsight, it’s hard to imagine how EMI ever envisaged Talk Talk as some kind of new Duran Duran. Mark Hollis was never going to be a pin-up idol, standing astride the bow of a yacht in a cream jacket. A stylistic dalliance with the New Romantic movement, of which neither was ever really a part, the early tunes are strong enough although very much of their time. Decked out in 80s synth, electronic drums and the inevitable fretless bass; to play first album “The Party’s Over” is to pull out an affectionately-remembered photograph to smile at what were fashionable haircuts at the time. Sparing the blushes however is that towering Hollis vocal, that emotive upper-register delivery, best displayed on the aforementioned “Have You Heard…” which gave a tantalising peek into the timeless creations that were to come.

The subsequent arrival of Tim Friese-Greene in the Talk Talk stable was the starting gun for a partnership with Hollis that would develop great critical, and some commercial, success. A sound-shaper with compatible musical ambitions, Friese-Greene never assumed a formal role within Talk Talk, a musical odyssey that was becoming less of a traditional band and more of a living embodiment of Hollis’ existential quest. That the album “It’s My Life” slipped through largely unnoticed in the UK at the time is little reflection on its qualities, which were appreciated in continental Europe and further afield.

Released in 1986, “The Colour of Spring” was to be Talk Talk’s greatest balance of critical and commercial acclaim, a further refining of Hollis’ ambitions towards the creative zenith of his final works.  In its midst reside accessible yet thoughtful pop gems; the inspired, now iconic, piano bass thump of “Life’s What You Make It” being perhaps the best remembered. Also loitering was “April 5th”, a song about renewal and new possibilities, inspired equally by the change of seasons and Hollis’ recent marriage. It was a portent of Talk Talk’s further diversion into more pastoral territory with the band’s final releases. Hollis would never tour again and there began his gradual retreat to the studio and to the reclusive.

“Spirit of Eden” has become not so much an album as a myth. Conceptual and brave, it is a work that begs to be appreciated in its entirety; an exceptional suite of improvised, organic pieces. Form and time itself are set aside as each chapter unfolds, almost literal breaths of fresh air as Hollis reframes his focus towards fashioning moments of inspiration without boundaries. Silences are employed. Gentle passages are broken by discordant sounds and explosive episodes. Hollis didn’t realise he was inventing post-rock at the time, he was just being true to his artistic instincts. Written for his brother, “I Believe In You” stands with perhaps only the work of Mark Eitzel as a devastating exploration of a loved one’s battle with addiction. It’s beautiful and heart breaking. 

As critics sought out new descriptions for what Hollis had created, the artist himself declined to comment on it, preferring to leave his work to germinate in the imagination of each listener. It is perhaps why so many people in the wake of his death have recounted the special meaning that Talk Talk’s latter works have for them personally. For this writer, “Wealth”, the closing piece from “Spirit of Eden” has huge resonance. I didn’t understand as a teenager, but after 30 years and a second marriage the line “take my freedom for giving me a sacred love” strikes with the precision of an arrow. It takes a special artist to refine with such wisdom and insight; to write not about unrequited feelings or about the end of a relationship, but instead capture, in simple and pure terms, the very essence of love and the sacrifice that it demands. 

The record is unclassifiable in genre, incorporating echoes of disparate styles; from classical, to jazz, to blues, to rock. EMI were left clueless as to what to do with “Spirit of Eden” and its long passages of individually unmarketable music, leading to an unsightly legal wrangle that starkly highlighted the conflict between the creation of timeless art and the creation of money. Hollis ended up on the right side of history and “Spirit of Eden” remains his masterpiece.

The final Talk Talk album, “Laughing Stock” did not appear until 1991. Further distilling the improvisational ethos that had informed its predecessor, the album was created in near darkness, with blacked out windows and clocks removed from walls to create a unique environment in which to create. Armed with full artistic control, Hollis set about painstakingly piecing together the songs, in the process discarding over three-quarters of what was recorded. Around fifty musicians contributed, while the work of fewer than twenty made the final mix. The songs themselves, while true to what Hollis considered was a near-perfect template from “Spirit of Eden”, seemed to signal the artist’s retreat into the silence he fundamentally cherished over music for the sake of music. Even lower key sounds were eked out, lyrics further truncated. More critical acclaim was to follow,  but with the intended destination reached, Talk Talk quietly slipped away.

Hollis would only release one more album, a solo release in 1998. This continued the creative diminuendo. Another focus was now appearing; family life. Unable to envisage a balance between music and fatherhood, Hollis opted for the latter. I am sure that this was a decision that was true to that same sense of integrity that was present throughout his career and never one that was regretted.

I would say that Mark Hollis will be missed, but he already was. He always said that silence was perfect but I will always be grateful for the treasures with which he left us.

Iain Dalgleish (Deputy Editor)