If you haven’t heard of Mark Hollis then you’ve missed out on a little slice of musical magic. Literally now, because it was announced last night that he had died (following the ubiquitous ‘short illness’). As a songwriter and musician and pioneer he genuinely was right out there in front of the bunch and the small body of work he and his collaborators left behind packs more wallop than I can possibly describe. The 80’s were a funny decade for music, but the top 1% produced was as good as anything else out there, and Talk Talk were at the top of the tree. Better than New Order or The Smiths or The Cure, than The King or Queen of pop, than Kylie or even Jason? Yes. A firm yes. Only kidding about Jason.
There was never any doubt that Hollis called the shots; Talk Talk were his band and he always seemed happy to shuffle or re-stock the members to suit his ever expanding musical whims. Their first two albums were fabulous loans to soul searching, adult 80’s synth-pop confectionary. By album three – ‘The Colour Of Spring’ – they were pushing up through the clouds, leaving clear space between them and their rivals (though I doubt Hollis really cared about rivals, he was more interested in making good music). It is a deeply tuneful and atmospheric album, without a single kink, and is totally worth buying. So buy it. Watch their performance at Montreaux on YouTube as well, and you’ll see that they had some serious live muscle too.
If you know me well enough you’ll know how much I treasure the album ‘Spirit of Eden’, and while it may seem obvious to fans of Hollis’ work, it truly is his finest hour (it’s not far off being the finest hour of any music). It is moving in a way that can apply to virtually no other album in existence. It uses hints from all kinds of places and spaces in classical music, ambient and jazz, but then from this forges something so unique and special it has the power to twine itself into your DNA, from which it will never leave. The follow up – ‘Laughing Stock’ – is pretty much as good, though perhaps a little more jazzy and (deliberately?) idiosyncratic. You could call it a slightly less focused companion piece. Or maybe it’s actually even more focused. It doesn’t matter, I cannot recommend this music highly enough.
Hollis slipped out a delicate, clever and very low key solo album in 1998 called, cleverly, ‘Mark Hollis’, which took everything he had done to the logical end of the line. And then he vanished. He didn’t indulge in retrospect or crave any drooling praise (like this, for instance), he just went home and spent time with his family. He refused to release any more music and also refused to entertain any idea of getting involved in repackaging (I’d like to think his outtakes would beat most other bands masters). He had done enough and his version of enough was magnificent. His dignity and artistry should be held up as a beacon in an age when very little of either exists. The BBC News website today lazily described him as a star but, as per, they’re utterly wrong. There are stars as we know them and there are people like Hollis, who just don’t deserve such a thoughtless label. Give his work a try, we may never hear this kind of music again.