An album like this needs time and space to resound, and its echo can still be heard.
For many listeners, Talk Talk was the band they discovered when Gwen Stefani put out her cover of “It’s My Life,” a song too suspiciously good to have been a product of the bubblegum oughts. But even then, research might only have led them so far, and not far enough, to the ‘80s group’s fourth and fifth albums, Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991), some of the most sonically adventurous albums of the period, especially coming from a group that had been quite successful for more conventional, radio-friendly songs. After Talk Talk broke up the year after Laughing Stock, singer Mark Hollis released his first and, to date, only solo album in 1998.
Whereas those last two Talk Talk albums had been ingenious for their curation of huge amounts of largely improvised material, Mark Hollis is in many ways a much smaller affair. Hollis’ voice is front and center, free from overdubs and recorded with crystal-clear resonance; were it not for how well-written and poignant the lyrics are, it would be like listening to an album that consisted of simple arrangements revolving around a single, pure instrument. In this way, it is reminiscent of Scott Walker’s work, though without the almost brutally alienating elements that characterize the American singer’s later output. No, this is music whose aim is beauty—though its means of attaining it are far from customary.
On second track “Watershed,” after hearing Hollis literally shift in his seat, we get acoustic guitar, percussion, double bass and harmonica sketching out a simple groove as Hollis’ voice emerges from the mix: “Come my love/ Kick the line/ Afield lies nothing/ But squalor to turn on.” And the chorus (so to speak): “Should have said so much/ Makes it harder/ The more you love.” These fragmentary yet intimate lyrics are par for the course on an album that seems to reveal little while putting everything on the line, emotionally speaking. As other, further horn instruments join in, they stir up a quiet intensity that speaks even when the lyrics go silent.
In some ways, then, the album becomes a kind of dramatization of the sayable and unsayable, with Hollis’ voice and lyrics rising up, gesturing toward something and then retreating to let speech and expression occur by other means. On the psalm-like “Inside Looking Out,” a soft piano spells out chords for a few minutes before passing the baton to guitar and vocals, making what sounded like the beginning of a jazz standard become a folksier number for a time before returning to its jazzier beginnings with minimalist interventions of bass, clarinet and piano.
More syncopated rhythms crop up in “The Gift,” with Hollis’ wavering voice barely rising above the sparse instrumentation, including a memorable “broken” harmonica solo. On the album’s modernist operetta-like centerpiece “A Life (1895-1915),” Hollis’ writing achieves its height of experimental minimalism: “Uniform/ Dream cites freedom/ Avow/ Relent/ Such suffering/ Few certain/ And here I lay.” His mellifluous voice, too, seems freed even from the lyrics, as though a set of sounds were to cease being voice once they assume word-form. On these songs, one feels face-to-face with Hollis’ music, not just because of the way the vocals are recorded, but because one can hear every squeak and scrape of each instrument.
A relatively more traditional song like “Westward Bound” makes one think how things would have turned out differently if Hollis had been dropped into 1970s Laurel Canyon rather than 1980s London, whereas the arrangements on a song like “The Daily Planet” (and throughout) makes one wish he’d do more composing or arranging, such is his ability to conjure mood and atmosphere with the barest set of uncanny elements, even just the hit of a tambourine. Album closer “A New Jerusalem” contains perhaps the most affecting and singing on the album, with Hollis giving voice to a speaker returned home from war—“One among five/ A pawn the same/ And I’m home again.” Airy strumming on an acoustic, coupled with jazzy drumming, horn-only interludes and Hollis’ vocals, as resonant as they are fragile, come together on this final song, whose cryptic last words—“Do you see?”—serve as a fitting epitaph for the album.
Indeed, though Mark Hollis has certainly not left us—in any sense—the album was never meant to “lead” to anything, being both his inaugural act as a solo artist as well as his final goodbye as a musical artist as such. And he has certainly kept his word, for nearly 20 years now. Perhaps rightly, it is hard to imagine where one would go from here. An album like this needs time and space to resound, and its echo can still be heard.