Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis (Polydor, 1998)
For all the critical rehabilitation of Talk Talk’s extraordinary ‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ albums over the last ten years, it’s still surprisingly difficult to find incisive writing on Mark Hollis’ debut, and so far only, solo work. It took several years for Hollis to muster the inspiration to record again after ‘Laughing Stock’, by which time Talk Talk had effectively disintegrated. It’s clear that the recording processes for both ‘Spirit..’ and ‘Laughing Stock’ were protracted and both physically and emotionally draining, leaving the group with little coherence or resolve. The results of course speak for themselves – both records are unique musical statements, completely unlike anything else in the British rock canon, with an originality, force and power few artists can muster.
Those major Talk Talk albums existed largely as seamless pieces of music, and made more sense as complete works than as a sequence of songs. They also displayed a steadfast lack of respect for genre boundaries, melding elements of contemporary composition with rock and improvised jazz. Recorded with large groups of musicians in unconventional groupings, they were meticulously arranged, with as much attention paid to silences as the sudden bursts of savage noise. In light of this, it’s tempting to portray Hollis’ solo work as simply an extension of this approach to writing and recording.
Yet there’s a crucial and fundamental difference that sets ‘Mark Hollis’ apart from all of Talk Talk’s output. If anything, this is a more schematic and theorised work, recorded entirely on acoustic instruments. As a result, there are no electric guitars, only upright bass, drums mostly delicately brushed rather than hit, and the overall sound is consistently dignified and restrained. Hollis had already explored a range of avenues in jazz and rock forms, but had now also discovered Eastern European folk music. Explaining his approach to this album on its release in 1998, he stated that he was searching for the common elements between chamber music, jazz and folk. It was also Hollis’ first work without the input of Tim Friese-Greene, instead collaborating with arrangers Phil Ramacon and Dominic Miller.
The result of this questing is a stark minimalism that defies musical convention or easy classification. Sometimes there is genuinely nothing here (opening track ‘The Colour Of Spring’ begins with 19 seconds of considered silence), and Hollis’ voice, increasingly elusive, drifts in and out of focus. The music is hushed, but extraordinary, and it remains staggering how much feeling and texture Hollis and his musicians could wrench from as few notes as possible. Hollis’ famous quotation from this period sums it all up brilliantly: "Before you play two notes learn how to play one note - and don't play one note unless you've got a reason to play it." There’s a palpable sense across the whole album that every beat and every sound have been placed in order to be meaningful. This is most notable from the deployment of reed and wind instruments – Flute, Cor anglais, Bassoon and Clarinet, which all serve to layer texture and enhance mood, in unshowy arrangements that reject the temptations of virtuosity.
Hollis is credited with production duties himself, but engineer Phill Brown must surely be the unsung hero of this project. The naturalistic, elemental sound at least gives the impression of a chamber ensemble interacting (although I have no idea whether or not the music was recorded ‘as live’), and there’s no attempt to manipulate or disguise the natural timbre of the instruments. Very few albums recorded in the '90s sounded this pure or convincing. There’s a beauty and clarity to the piano and vocal opener ‘The Colour Of Spring’ that is only deceptively simple, and the lengthy ‘A Life (1895-1915)’ is characterised by subtle and controlled shifts in texture and dynamics.
Hollis’ lyrics are frequently still derided as oblique or frustrating, and whilst it’s true that a literal meaning is not always immediately clear, there’s an elegant flow to the language that complements the music and also contributes to the languid, profoundly reflective atmosphere. The words frequently sound beautiful. The title of ‘The Colour Of Spring’ harks back to the earlier Talk Talk album of the same name, but the Talk Talk of the mid-80s would never have written or recorded anything this quietly intense: ‘And yet I’ll gaze/The colour of spring/Immerse in that one moment/Left in love with everything/Soar the bridges/That I burnt before/One song among us all’. Elsewhere, the lyrics sometimes seem like strands of disconnected words or phrases, but one of Hollis’ great gifts as a writer is to make plangent melancholy by undercutting expectations, such as on ‘A New Jerusalem’, where he sings, so softly its almost inaudible, ‘Summer unwinds/But no longer kind’. The fragmented nature of the language reflects the unusual ebb and flow of the music – with no obvious verses or choruses, these are free flowing songs that follow their own uniquely questing path. By varying the volume and lucidity of his singing, Hollis effectively subsumes his voice completely within the music – rather than something added as a hook or an afterthought, the vocals are an intrinsic part of these arrangements.
In the nine years since this album’s release, little has been heard from Hollis and it is unclear whether or not he plans to record again, although his former Talk Talk colleague Paul Webb was instrumental in the success of Beth Gibbons’ excellent ‘Out Of Season’ album. Hollis is a singular talent with a clear and uncompromising vision, but there’s the increasing sense that this melancholy, haunting work is the last we may hear from him.