While there’s a natural progression between each of Talk Talk’s five studio albums, the distance between their 1982 synth-pop debut The Party’s Over and 1991’s jazz and ambient influenced Laughing Stock represents one of the most stunning transformations in popular music; a band that was originally pigeonholed as a one hit wonder went on to produce some of the most unique and timeless albums of their era. Having fired synthesiser player Simon Brenner after the debut, the group pared down to a three piece, with vocalist and songwriter Mark Hollis, bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris. While Webb and Harris are fine musicians, and important feature of the band’s sound, it’s the axis of Hollis and producer/keyboardist Tim Friese-Green who became the key figures in the group, enlisting legions of studio musicians to create lush layers of organic instrumentation.
I don’t care for the group’s early material at all, but on 1986’s The Colour of Spring they found their feet spectacularly, cranking out a pop masterpiece. They got much more esoteric with 1988’s Spirit of Eden, an album that’s credited with inventing post-rock. 1991’s Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis’ 1998 solo album take the Spirit of Eden sound even further. Mark Hollis all but retired from music after his solo album, but he left a legacy of four phenomenal albums.
Talk Talk Album Reviews
The Party’s Over
1982, not rated
I’m listing this for completeness, but have no interest in hearing it. All the other synth pop material I’ve heard from Talk Talk has left me cold.
It’s My Life
Talk Talk are still in synth pop mode for their second album, It’s My Life. It’s merely a competent synth era record, although with good taste and economical arrangements and topped off with an emotive singer. The best song is the one that most accurately predicts their future course; ‘Tomorrow Started’ features the jazzy feel and more experimental textures that would mark their later records, with a distorted guitar used as background ambience on an otherwise gentle track.
Most of the first side is relatively solid – the title track was remade into a hit for No Doubt, and it’s a well constructed and hooky piece, while ‘Such A Shame’ and ‘Dum Dum Girl’ are also fine singles of their era, although the latter’s central hook is almost irritating enough to write it off entirely. The second half is less convincing, with badly dated material like ‘Call In The Night Boy’ and ‘It’s You’, with little happening musically beyond simple keyboard riffs.
There are signs of something beyond perfunctory hit making on It’s My Life, but I doubt that too many pundits in 1984 would have predicted Talk Talk’s following albums to be so sublime and genre breaking.
The Colour of Spring
The Colour of Spring is one of the biggest quality leaps in the history of popular music. The Colour of Spring takes all the best elements of mid-1980s pop – huge hooks and clean production (which suits this band perfectly) – and adds a few unique elements of its own, emphasising subtlety and nuance, and relying on organic instruments. Synthesisers are all but supplanted by piano, organ, mellotron, and orchestral instruments to supply the colour on this vivid and expressive record. Producer Tim Friese-Green is prominent, co-writing every track with Mark Hollis, producing and playing keyboards on most songs.
These songs successfully bridge the gap between mainstream pop and artiness, using creative arrangements; the children’s choir on ‘Happiness is Easy’, the infectious piano bass-line of ‘Life’s What You Make It’, and songs dropping into gently psychedelic solo sections. They sound like potentially huge hits if the group played by the pop rules more closely, but Hollis and Friese-Green constantly challenge themselves with lateral instrumentation and structures. A pair of songs break away from the pop idiom altogether, pointing the next direction the band would take; the gentle ‘Chameleon Day’ is almost nothing but atmosphere, while the jazzy piano led ‘April 5th’ thrives on the yearning in Hollis’ voice. These two pieces help to give the album balance, and embellish it with a more reflective and beautiful tone overall. The album’s six other songs are also uniformly strong; the white soul of ‘Give It Up’ rides a fantastic groove from Webb and Harris, ‘Living In Another World’ and ‘Time It’s Time’ are catchy and climactic, while the striking ‘Life’s What You Make It’ is one of the best singles of its decade.
With The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk went from a passable synth-pop band to making beautiful and ambitious pop music.
Spirit Of Eden
The jump from The Colour Of Spring to Spirit Of Eden is as much an advance as The Colour Of Spring was from its predecessor. The result of fourteen months of recording in an abandoned Suffolk church, it’s warm and inviting, filled with rich organic sounds like its predecessor, but downbeat, subtle and gorgeous, where its predecessor relied on pop hooks. Spirit Of Eden was made before the term post-rock was coined, and it’s very much a pioneer of that genre, dispensing with rigid verse-chorus structure in favour of a more impressionistic style, laying down colours and emotions. In terms of harmonic structure and melody, Spirit Of Eden is relatively pedestrian and slow moving, shifting the focus onto production and arrangements, and onto Hollis’ yearning vocals.
There’s also a deep air of spirituality about Spirit Of Eden; the anti-heroin statement of ‘I Believe In You’ is the only song where the subject matter is spelt out, and even that is underpinned by a spiritual current, while titles like ‘Desire’ and ‘Inheritance’, and lyrics like “rage on omnipotent” only mirror the record’s musical content. Its difficult to imagine each of the album’s six tracks outside their context, as they’re designed to work as a suite; the first three all segueing together, while the long silences between the tracks on the second side are just as much a critical part of the album’s flow. And each piece has its own distinct character, whether it’s the surging and unexpectedly violent guitars of ‘Desire’, the soothing organ hook of ‘I Believe In You’, or the naked vulnerability of the closing ‘Wealth’.
I don’t enjoy Spirit Of Eden as much as the huge pop hooks of The Colour Of Spring, but in many ways it’s an even more dazzling and timeless achievement.
After Spirit Of Eden failed to spawn a successful single or follow The Colour of Spring into the UK top ten, despite its huge recording expense, Talk Talk ended their relationship with a disillusioned EMI. Paul Webb also quit the band, later collaborating with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons as Rustin’ Man. The remaining duo of Mark Hollis and Lee Harris continued for one last album, released on the jazz label Polydor. Coincidentally, it’s actually the jazz feel of the rhythm tracks – Harris jazzier drumming style and the acoustic bass of the session players – that’s the single biggest departure from the Spirit Of Edensound. Otherwise Laughing Stock is a gentler, more subtle sequel; apart from the violent guitars of ‘Ascension Day’, it rarely raises above a gentle murmur.
It would be a shame if Hollis and Friese-Green didn’t continue in the ground-breaking vein of Spirit Of Eden, and this album is very nearly as good; it’s just the relatively sedate and uneventful opening and closing tracks that stop this album reaching the same heights. The remaining four tracks, though, are largely sublime, pushing out the boundaries established by Spirit Of Eden. Hollis’s guitar assault in ‘Ascension Day’ is both wilder and more refined than the previous album’s ‘Desire’, while ‘Taphead’ pushes further into avant-garde territory. ‘After The Flood’ and ‘New Grass’ both approach the ten minute mark and are both gorgeous, relying on vivid acoustic textures.
Laughing Stock is a fine, if premature end, to a wonderful career.
1998, not rated
This two disc set consists of a disc of remixes and a disc of b-sides. Most of the material focuses on the period around the first two albums, and I’m not that excited about the remixes, but buried right at the end of the second disc is some excellent material from The Colour of Spring and Spirit of Eden eras – the single edit of ‘Eden’ isn’t so exciting, but these songs are all worth hearing:
“It’s Getting Late in the Evening” – 5:46
“For What It’s Worth” – 5:22
“Pictures of Bernadette” – 5:04
“John Cope” – 4:39
Mark Hollis (by Mark Hollis)
This self titled debut is the only full album that Hollis has released since Talk Talk finished their career with Laughing Stock; since then he’s prioritised his family and largely abandoned the music industry. Mark Hollis is even more subdued than the quiet parts of Laughing Stock; it’s quiet, minimalist, and almost solely performed on acoustic instruments. Gentle piano and acoustic bass are often the primary textures. Hollis stated that he was influenced by 20th century classical music while recording, and instruments like clarinets and bassoons add an orchestral flavour.
The highlight is ‘The Daily Planet’, with its hypnotic woodwind riff and soaring melody, while A Life 1895-1915 tells the story of World War One poet Roland Leighton. It’s not quite as accessible as Hollis’ work with Talk Talk, because it’s gentler and subtler. But since Hollis has produced so little material in his career, Mark Hollisis an absolutely essential part of his story.
Ten Favourite Talk Talk Songs
The Daily Planet (Mark Hollis solo)
I Believe In You
Life’s What You Make It
Give It Up
Pictures of Bernadette
Living In Another World