When talking about the first few albums by Talk Talk, it feels a little like discussing “Brown Eyed Girl”-era, pre-Astral Weeks Van Morrison, or Radiohead while Thom Yorke was still lamenting “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo” amdist thick, grungy Jonny Greenwood ca-chunks. It’s the part of the band’s history that non-fans are most likely to be familiar with, even though it’s the part that longtime fans are most likely to dismiss altogether, or that newer fans might not even know about in the first place.
The band — fronted by the late Mark Hollis, who died this week at age 64 — went on to such tremendous, borderline-unprecedented musical accomplishments in the late ’80s and early ’90s once they stopped caring about having hit singles, that their synth-pop days of the early ’80s can almost seem crassly commercial by comparison. But of course, both “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Creep” still endure as classics in their own right, and a lot of Talk Talk’s early material remains similarly vital — even as it feels like an almost enitrely different group that went on to establish the template for turn-of-the-century post-rock with their ensuing LPs.
Talk Talk came out swinging on their first single, the seething “Talk Talk.” Adapted from a song Hollis wrote but never released with previous band The Reaction — then titled “Talk Talk Talk Talk,” after the song’s repeated chorus — the song made an obvious impression from its first synth blasts, slithering its way onto the charts on both sides of the Atlantic and becoming a fixture on early MTV for its abstract, post-apocalyptic and uber-nu wave music video. “Talk Talk” also shared not only a title with a Music Machine hit from 1966, collected on the Lenny Kaye-curated Nuggets box set, but a general strategy: Both songs unleash their title refrains like short, concentrated jabs to the head, leaving the listener reeling.
Ironically for a band who would come to be remembered for expansive arrangements and patient pacing, in their early days, Talk Talk excelled at hooks like this: compact, to the point and absolutely unmissable. Debut album The Party’s Over is full of these, including post-punkier breakout U.K. hit “Today” (which contains four backing shouts of the title word per refrain) and the string-soaked side-B cut “Mirror Man” (chorus: “MIRROR MAN! Oh, oh, oh“). The album’s bold melodies and new-wave energy got the band lumped in the Spandau Ballets and Duran Durans of the latest British invasion — and not unfairly so — but while Hollis’ vocals were often tortured, his phrasing rarely was: there’s no talk of buying a ticket to the world or being as easy as a nuclear war to be found.
Even still, sophomore set It’s My Life was a The Bends-sized jump for Talk Talk. Rarely mentioned among the band’s classic albums, It’s My Life remains an astonishingly accomplished LP, equally adept at Simple Minds-like arena synth-pop (“Such a Shame”), explosive sophisti-rock (“Call in the Night Boys”), and art-pop power balladry (“Tomorrow Started”). The slow creep and moaning horns and keys of the latter even served as a first taste of the band’s next phase, with both it and torch song “Renee” stretching out to six minutes, and the roaming fretless bass of Paul Webb and paradoxically lush minimalism of Tim Friese-Greene’s production demonstrating a greater depth to the band’s sonics than nearly any of their contemporaries.
And of course, the album peaks with the title track — easily the band’s best-remembered hit, arguably their single-song masterpiece, andunquestionably their most iconic video. Like “Talk Talk,” the song bursts out of the gate — the opening drum hit even sounds like a starter’s pistol — with descending keys on top, frisky bass bubbling undernath, and out of nowhere, what sounds like synth seagulls squawking overhead. Hollis’ lyric, wistful and self-effacing, begins as a love song that could go either way: “Funny how I find myself in love with you/ If I could buy my reasoning, I’d pay to lose.” But the song undergoes a surprise chord change before the pre-chorus, and by the time the exhilarating hook hits, the lyric’s turned defiant, if still despairing: “It’s my life! Don’t you forget! It’s my life! It never ends!” It’s a catharsis that feels all the more visceral for its unexpectedness.
Like all of Talk Talk’s music from any phase of the band’s career, it’s tied together by the singular voice of Hollis. His pinched yelp was typically new wave in its grand drama and always-heightened urgency, but there was a sort of hitch in it that made it always recognizable, like the sound of unpalatable (and perhaps unexpressable) emotions getting stuck in his throat. More than any of his peers, Hollis seemed able to vocalize a kind of deeper yearning that always transcended whatever surface concerns he was singing about, which made his eventual lyrical transition from romantic melodrama to a quasi-religious naturalism a surprisingly coherent one. You can hear the difference in No Doubt’s hit cover of “It’s My Life,” a fine interpretation of a pop song timeless enough to still be a major hit 20 years later, but one almost entirely devoid of the unique tension and gravity of the original; it’s Hollis’ vocal that makes the song indelible.
That transition would start in earnest with the band’s third album, 1986’s panoramic The Colour of Spring, which contained their biggest U.K. chart hit in the soaring “Life’s What You Make It” — though even that single contained no traditional verses or choruses. Ultimately, it would be Colour, along with 1988’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock, that provided Hollis and Talk Talk their most lasting legacy — the albums that appear on Pitchfork best-of-decade lists, or get namechecked by the next generation’s most important artists. But you don’t have any of that without their early days, which have aged better than you might remember, and which still provide the songs you’re most likely to hear on the radio, to find in karaoke books, or to be able to share with someone who doesn’t otherwise realize what an artistic great Hollis was. That part never ends, either.