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I have a good friend whom I’ve known since about 1993 who was devastated by the death of David Bowie. I felt awful hearing about that, but his passing didn’t quite hit me as hard as it did my friend. It may have been because there is about a ten-year difference in age. The experiences you have with certain musicians at a certain age end up becoming emblazoned onto your heart, and when that creator is taken from this world, the sting is truly painful.
Last night, I felt something terribly similar. The death of Mark Hollis at the age of 64 felt like a sucker-punch, especially after enjoying such a fine week with friends and students. I was a teenager when Mark started becoming famous, as his former band, Talk Talk, were not much to write home about. They had made a few great new wave albums, but were tainted with a name that probably reminded fans of even bigger groups like Duran Duran. Then something happened. By around 1986, they simply blossomed into something that I still can’t quite fathom, categorize or comprehend. The band released the album The Colour Of Spring. It was something more expressive than progressive rock, infinitely more challenging than new wave, and it had elements of jazz and ambient music, which I was just getting into at the time. They would out-do this effort by releasing The Spirit of Eden. I’ve heard a few friends say that this may be the foundation of post-rock. I can see why. Pure experimentation, but still structured enough to make the music pleasant.
The band would disintegrate, and each would go on to do interesting things, but I was working at a record shop in Los Angeles, the late, lamented Aron’s Records, when I came across the album which would change my listening forever. Mark Hollis had released his first solo album in 1998. I remember taking it upstairs and playing it on the CD player our boss had generously given the buyers (it was a habit of the ten different buyers we had in those days to torture each other with music, and it was a great place to develop a great musical foundation outside of my own safe listening space). I’m particularly indebted to Tomas Palermo, Ted Plank, Tony Ruck, the Salvadorian crew of hip-hop guys, Jun and John Liu for flinging vinyl and CDs around. They were far better teachers than they realized.
Back to the album. From the first piano chord, I was hooked. I had never heard anything to fragile before, musically. Everything was so sparse. The instrumentation was as stripped as it got, Mark’s voice as lonesome as it could be, but every word of the first song was imbued with a heat I had never felt before in any music outside of Joy Division’s swan song, Closer.
A sample of “The Colour Of Spring”:
Forget our fate
The peddler sings
Set up to sell my soul
I’ve lived a life for wealth to bring
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
It is not a pop song by any stretch of the imagination, but a masterpiece of pop songwriting nonetheless.
The album reminded me of mellow jazz albums done by a fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Henry, very experimental, yet somehow, Mark was able to glue everything together just enough that the wings of this album didn’t collapse mid-flight.
The centerpiece of the album, A Life (1895 – 1915), was the first time I had heard an avant-garde memoir. From the Wikipedia article:
“A Life (1895 – 1915)”, which has been referred to as “the album’s epic centrepiece” refers to Roland Leighton (1895–1915), a British soldier and poet who was the fiancé of Vera Brittain at the time of his death in World War I. Hollis has stated about the song, “That was someone born before the turn of the century…and dying within one year of the First World War at a young age. It was based on Vera Brittain’s boyfriend. It’s the expectation that must have been in existence at the turn of the century, the patriotism that must’ve existed at the start of the war and the disillusionment that must’ve come immediately afterwards. It’s the very severe mood swings that fascinated me.” The song correspondingly contains a variety of styles, tempi, and instrumentations.
The whole album has been posted as a series of Youtube links. If your country blocks it, let me know, and we’ll find a work-around. It’s worth your time hearing, especially if you have some free hours in the late evening, with a vodka and lime and a pipe in hand.
Rest in peace, Mark, and thank you for providing the soundtrack to my third decade.