R.I.P. Mark Hollis: 10 Essential Tracks From the Talk Talk Frontman
Mark Hollis crafted his own brand of innovative, blissful rock -- not by building up, but by scaling back. “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note,” he said on Danish television in 1998. “And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.”
Those drones continue to resonate. During its run from 1981 to 1991, Hollis’ band, Talk Talk, ran the gamut from extroverted synth-pop to shockingly intimate post-rock. Their debut song, “Talk Talk,” was a danceable kiss-off to a serial cheater; their final, “Runeii,” was barely more than fingers gently scraping guitar strings.
Hollis made a career out of pulling back the layers -- until he went largely silent from the music industry in 1998. On Tuesday (Feb. 26), it was confirmed by BBC News that Hollis passed away at 64 after a “short illness from which he never recovered.” Although Hollis had been absent from the stage and studio for two decades, his music has only converted more disciples.
Listen to his entire six-album discography from Talk Talk's 1982 debut The Party’s Over to his lone solo album, 1998’s Mark Hollis, and you hear a pop craftsman gradually bringing his sound into the ether. Moody, experimental artists -- Radiohead, Yo La Tengo, Bon Iver, Godspeed You! Black Emperor -- were listening; Talk Talk was the wellspring for decades of haunting, heartfelt indie rock.
In honor of the late Mark Hollis’ legacy, here are 10 essential songs spanning his career.
“Talk Talk” (from The Party’s Over, 1982)
If you've only heard Talk Talk's debut, self-titled single, you might think they're your average '80s band -- more Duran Duran than drone. It’s not a strictly artistic comparison; Talk Talk began as labelmates and tourmates with the “Hungry Like the Wolf” stars. Although it lacks the meat of their future innovations, “Talk Talk” is bouncy fun -- and the putty from which Hollis would go on to sculpt exquisite classics.
“Today” (from The Party’s Over, 1982)
Talk Talk scored a minor hit overseas with “Today,” a rubbery synth-pop jam that shot to No. 14 in the U.K. Although the music is nondescript alongside era-specific singles by Howard Jones, XTC and Simple Minds, Hollis was already probing at primeval edges in the lyrics. “Numbers call to spell my name/ Move about as values change,” he sings, like he’s observing a world divorced from context.
“It’s My Life” (from It’s My Life, 1984)
Every second of “It’s My Life” works: the wheezing synth hook, the drum machine motorik, Hollis’ crooning about self-ownership in his fragile, froggish tenor. In its London Zoo-shot video, the band refuses to lip-sync, looking cold and miserable among ostriches, giraffes and kangaroos at sunset. It’s a beautiful no-confidence clip; the song, however, brims with it. This is where Talk Talk became truly great.
“Life’s What You Make It” (from The Colour of Spring, 1986)
The band loosened up on The Colour of Spring, emphasizing the interplay between bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris like never before. Needing a last-minute single, Hollis played the organ riff to “Green Onions” over the drum loop from Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill.” The result was the band’s most kinetic groove -- and it powered a classic Hollis anthem about agency and actualization.
“Living in Another World” (from The Colour of Spring, 1986)
This Colour of Spring cut is full of shifting moods, jarring cuts and out-there instrumental choices; it climbs through key changes as if molting from its skin. “Living in Another World” is full of references to angels, hell and impossible mazes; the title itself implies an earthbound artist with his head in the clouds. If your ideal version of Talk Talk lies somewhere between their two stylistic extremes, here’s your sweet spot.
“The Rainbow” (from Spirit of Eden, 1988)
Spirit of Eden is an album of firsts: the first they recorded without synthesizers, the first that didn’t concede to label muckety-mucks, the first with zero similarities to Duran Duran. It’s barely even a collection of songs at all, but an oceanic, ambient suite. Opener “The Rainbow” exemplifies the vibe; with its languid piano, muted trumpet and tempestuous feedback, it sounds less played than breathed.
“I Believe in You” (from Spirit of Eden, 1988)
If the open horizon of Spirit of Eden is a bit daunting for a first-time listener, “I Believe in You” is the album’s beating heart -- and most devastatingly personal moment. In a somewhat tone-deaf move, EMI Records chose the heartfelt, immersive song to be truncated into a single: “That’s what happens when you compromise,” Hollis later spat to The Guardian. “I Believe in You” must be heard in its full form to be believed; it was written as a mournful plea for Hollis’ younger brother, Ed, to leave heroin behind. The month Spirit of Eden was released, he passed away.
“Ascension Day” (from Laughing Stock, 1991)
After leaving EMI for Polydor, the band -- now sans bassist Paul Webb -- dug even deeper into their broiling new sound. Where Spirit of Eden was feather-light, Laughing Stock is often nauseous and volatile -- the Bitches Brew to Eden's In a Silent Way. “Ascension Day” is an open-ended vamp that teases chaos; screeching catgut, blurting chords and mewling horns threaten its foundation.
“After the Flood” (from Laughing Stock, 1991)
Laughing Stock’s darkness is never more apparent than on “After the Flood.” Dark, queasy and unsettling, it’s the thrumming organ that splashes stomach acid on the rest of the album. “Turn my face to the floor / Dead to respect / To respect to be born,” Hollis sings, clouded in grief and memoriam for the recent loss of his brother. It’s the most gothic moment on a breathtakingly potent album; Talk Talk would never release another.
“The Colour of Spring” (from Mark Hollis, 1998)
In 1998, Hollis released his only solo album -- and completed his work’s long arc into intimacy. “The Colour of Spring” makes even the empty spaces of Spirit of Eden sound busy; it’s just Hollis, recorded close to the mic, singing over bare piano chords. If he spent his time in Talk Talk slowly deconstructing a basic sound, “Spring” is the sound of almost nothing left. The effect is brave, riveting and painfully honest -- much like the very missed Hollis himself.