Remembering Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis: It was his life—don’t you forget

Mark Hollis

Mark Hollis YouTube

When No Doubt covered "It's My Life," they gave Talk Talk's only American top 40 single an unbecoming virility, as if they’d covered AC/DC.

That early 1984 single had the insecure gait of many British singles that crashed on these shores: a rhythm stumbled on instead of played, anchored by a Paul Webb bassline I’m sure he was tired of reading described as "rubbery," and a synth line that flickered like a fog light.

At the center, shaking as if it overcome by fever, was Mark Hollis, whose death at the age of 64 was confirmed today. What he sings no one has ever figured out. Talk Talk were a hit in Europe and South America because like the era's Stallone pictures their miserliness about consonants transformed Hollis' words into an argot, except in Double T's case the argot was for teens in search of sexual and psychological exile. The album that shares a title with its hit offers fare stranger than its sleeve, which bore the usual UK mishmash of Henri Rousseau and Yes CD longboxes. Befitting an era infamous for electronic elegance, "Tomorrow Started" has the watery sheen of ice on fire, and already Hollis was learning how to isolate his vocal from the tumult instigated by the other members, particularly sessioneer Robbie McIntosh's pissed off guitar interjections.

But Hollis wasn't finished. Mixed with the pomp characteristic of many 1986-era albums that shook their heads with envy at what miserabilist duo Tears For Fears had wrought with Songs From the Big Chair, The Colour of Spring expanded the eccentricities of It's My Life into a fully lived-in structure, scoring Talk Talk’s biggest success to date, with Hollis like a dotty relative whose quirks never turn worrisome. On "Give It Up" and "Living in Another World," Talk Talk played to a community of tremulous sensitivity—an International Mumbler's Ball. The peak is "Life's What You Make It," in which David Rhodes plays searing leads while Hollis, pounding unceasingly on the low notes of his piano, gives the title the inevitability of a Madison Avenue tagline.

Drunk on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, in which a marooned trumpet blew melodies tinged with hints of the Holy Land, 1988’s Spirit of Eden was a more drastic departure. The arena histrionics were gone, replaced by its mirror image: a quietude that’s given the proper scale for its inchoateness. Remarkably, as singer-guitarist Hollis had risen to this impossible task (David Sylvian tried but settled for chic, listenable, innocuous). The only performer attempting this disregard for phrasing at the time was Bryan Ferry, who lent the muffled sigh the nuance that Garbo did the cocked eyebrow.

Yet consider: Talk Talk’s label, wondering why Hollis hadn’t recorded his version of Peter Gabriel’s So, funded Spirit of Eden. Polydor let him and collaborator/producer Tim Friese-Greene spend a year in the studio laying down the tracks for what would become 1991’s Laughing Stock. (Talk Talk as a band had evaporated, more or less.) Distinguished by leisurely, loping tracks with organ washes and guitar ripples, over which Hollis’ stratospheric warble trembled before the ineffable, Laughing Stock knocked British critics out and left Americans cold in the same month when Nevermind toughened our spines against English warblers. To think of Radiohead, Elbow, and Shearwater without Laughing Stock is like imagining Keith Richards without Chuck Berry. None, though, approached the hymnal “New Grass,” where Hollis attempts “Nearer My God, to Thee” and finds Him—or, better, creates Him.

Except for a Hollis solo album in 1998 that added more filigrees to his gossamer matrices, that was that for Talk Talk. This was the act whose 1982 debut The Party’s Overthe most on-brand title in history—gritted its teeth through C+-level Duran Duran shimmying in front of octogonal drums while Hollis fussed its disquietude to death.“All you do to me is talk talk,” Hollis wailed on the minor title hit. Silence and exile he sought, with some cunning—when he needed money he composed a bit for a Kelsey Grammer TV series. Meanwhile his reputation grew. Now it’s clear from his most famous songs that Hollis wanted not to disappear into the abyss but to recut the abyss into a shape he would have liked. Life is what he made it.