Total, Unblinking, Unerring, Irreversible Escape

Very sad to hear that Mark Hollis has passed away. There’ll be a lot of Talk Talk played at home today.

I think about “The Rainbow” a lot — the opener to their 1988 album Spirit of Eden. I’ve always been enchanted by its sample from the final scene of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, as if starting from where it ends, leaving the Siberian zone for a new eden that is palpably western, it seems, despite emerging from a North London studio. It bends time and space to its will.

I’ve been reading Rob Young’s Electric Eden recently and was thrilled to find Talk Talk emerge from it as exemplary of a particularly unBritish Englishness which seems to channel some sort of frontier. I love Young’s description of Spirit of Eden, so of but so beyond its time, defining it by what it escapes. He writes:

Spirit of Eden, which emerged from its nine-month pupation in September 1988, represented a wholesale re-evaluation, like a yuppie renouncing his financial career and taking off to live in a yurt. […]

Hollis equated the artificiality of modern studio techniques with the pervasive dishonesty of his times. […] EMI’s desperate marketing campaign was reduced to calling it “An album for 1988”; in fact, it was much more an album for 1968, and yet had advanced further than almost all their contemporaries.

His description of the sounds of Spirit of Eden in itself are pure psychedelia, like huffing the melted lacquer of a vinyl record you just want to try and get inside.

Hollis created a sorrowing masterpiece, adrift in every way — from its fragile ensemble sound to its dejected, pining vocals — from the prevailing winds of the pop charts. The first sung line — after a tensed, dewy dawn of muted trumpet, sustained strings, tectonic rumbles and scraped ceramics lasting almost two and a half minutes — is ‘The world’s turned upside down‘. ‘The Rainbow’ arches across the whole of side one, the music inhaling and exhaling slowly through ‘Eden’ before breaking into the excoriating rasp in the middle of ‘Desire’. Side two adds an extra measure of chagrined disgust with the injustices, needless deaths and materialism of his own time: Hollis as a modern-day Blake, bearing witness to London’s dismal streets. With its luminous jazz-trio textures and Danny Thompson’s double-bass figures, ‘Inheritance’ can be heard as a successor to John Martyn’s ‘Solid Air’. Particularly since the song’s subject could conceivably be a thumbnail sketch of Nick Drake, a ‘Nature’s son … Burying progess in the clouds / … Heaven bless you in your calm‘. Like Drake, Hollis is in communion with exquisite instants in the natural world: spring is broad-brushed in three words, ‘lilic glistening fool‘, and the lyrics, shaved almost to synactical incomprehensibility, offset the simple joys of nature against lives governed by financial incentives: ‘I’ve seen heroin for myself / On the street so young laying wasted‘ sings Hollis on ‘I Believe in You’, a cri de coeur— with a choral section lifted from Sibelius’s sixth symphony — that may be a warning to his brother at the height of his problems with the drug.

There was also a great article written by Josh Baines last year for Noisey which has a wonderful opening and introduces Hollis as someone this blog is bound to admire:

Escape — total, unblinking, unerring, irreversible escape — is a basic human fantasy. The desire to disappear, to be elsewhere and other, is why we drink to excess, or take the drugs we told ourselves and our parents we’d never take. It is why we plunge ourselves into debt just for a weekend watering someone else’s indoor plants in a Berlin apartment. And it is why, in quiet, unguarded moments, late at night and at our most alone, we imagine just how it feels to slowly, ever so slowly, walk into the sea, never once looking back, not waving but drowning.


A lack of enchantment in the present; a desire to wilfully confuse memory with youth; a proper final payday for a bunch of blokes who’ve lived precariously off eBay for the past decade — there any many reasons why the reformation scene is bigger than ever. One thing however is certain: the musical comeback — be it a faithful reproduction of the old favorites, or a dull and dismal attempt to do something new — is more often than not a disappointing embarrassment. In this context — and in most contexts, really — Mark Hollis stands out. This isn’t to say that Mark Hollis is a total anomaly — Bill Withers and Captain Beefheart are proof that with enough willpower, one can escape the music industry for good. But Mark Hollis is perhaps the only musician to come back as strong as ever, after Talk Talk, to then walk away again.

Enjoy your final escape, Mark. Thanks for the breadcrumbs you left on the way out.

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