Last week, we lost Mark Hollis, one of music’s most important artists. Hollis was the lead vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and creative tour-de-force behind English experimental band Talk Talk. Hollis’ unyielding artistic vision transformed a Duran-Duran esque synthpop band into a daring music project that combined jazz, ambient, classical music and rock; their latter style would lay out the blueprints for the post-rock movement of the nineties. However, to simply throw on all these labels to Talk Talk and Hollis’ music is reductive. The music he made transcends genre conventions and hits at the core of the human spirit, a spirit that Hollis embodied and spread.
Hollis’ first musical act was with his punk band The Reaction, which produced a few singles before splitting up between 1977 and 1981. During this time, Hollis would be introduced to progressive rock by King Crimson and Pink Floyd, and jazz by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.
Not long after, Talk Talk was formed in 1981, consisting of Hollis, drummer Lee Harris, bassist Paul Webb and keyboardist Simon Brenner. They released their debut the The Party’s Over in 1982, which was a fairly average synth-pop fare. It’s on their next record, when Brenner left and producer Tim Friese-Greene would step into the picture, where they begin to shed a bit of their synth-pop coat and slip into an artsier, new wave one on It’s My Life in 1984. Greene would be instrumental in the formation of Talk Talk’s sound to their eventual dissolution.
Next, in 1986, The Colour of Spring would be released, and it’s at this point clear that Hollis had bigger dreams than playing new wave. His songwriting in conjunction with the lush, organic production of Greene, the instrumental talents of Harris and Webb and the wide array of session musicians created a record filled to the brim with life. It’s a mile ahead of the albums that came before it, and shows Hollis’ evolution as an artist. However, while admirable, Hollis had more to do, and they would be even bolder than the last three albums.
Spirit of Eden (1988) and Laughing Stock (1991) are the final pieces of Hollis’ artistic vision, and were like nothing anyone has ever listened to. With Hollis and Greene having full control of the studio, the production of these albums are larger than life. They originated from hundreds of hours of improvisation sessions with dozens of session musicians with Hollis allowing them to improvise for as long as they want.
Sonically, however, whatever excess that had been on The Colour of Spring had been trimmed, leaving behind ethereal, jazz-inspired soundscapes and Hollis’ gut wrenching, tear-jerking vocals. These works are esoteric as they are personal, with Hollis meditating on spirituality and mortality. However, it’s almost impossible to describe the sheer beauty of both of these albums in words. It has to be heard to be believed.
After Laughing Stock, Hollis made the executive decision to end the project. He had achieved the sound he wanted to accomplish on the last two records, and wanted to dedicate his time to his family. He stepped back in the studio one more time in 1998 for a solo record titled Mark Hollis, sort of as a capstone to Talk Talk’s final records. Hollis is at his most sparse, even more so than on the last two albums. This record played with folk more than jazz, but it’s just as beautiful. After that, however, Hollis completely stepped out of the studio, and spent the rest of his days with family until his passing from an undisclosed illness. He was 64.
In an interview on Danish TV right after Mark Hollis was released, Mark Hollis said two very powerful things. One, on music: “Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, y’know. And that, it’s as simple as that really. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.” Two, on silence: “I like silence. I get on great with silence, you know. I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just silent, y’know. So it’s kind of like—well, if you’re going to break into it, just try and have a reason for doing it.”
While this interview was about his music and his art, I think Hollis applied this ethos to his personal life. He was an artist’s artist, never overstaying his welcome with dozens of sound-chasing albums or reunion tours. Hollis only wanted to speak when he felt like he had something to say, only breaking that sacred silence when necessary. The fact that Hollis, at his creative and critical peaks, decided to simply walk away from the industry twice and be with his family speaks volumes about the man’s character, more so than any album ever could.
Hollis was a humble, outstanding artist who made some of the best music of the eighties and nineties, and despite being outside of the world of music for nearly two decades, his presence is one that I, among many others, will miss. May you rest easy Mark David Hollis. I hope you have found your Eden.