Ears to Hear: Talk Talk
This is the second article in a series of articles on music with artistic or spiritual significance.
Artistically significant musical artists and bands rarely remain static in their craft. With each new album, they utilize new recording techniques, incorporate new instruments, experiment with new musical influences, and push the boundaries of their sound. Notable examples include artists such as Miles Davis who evolved his sound from cool jazz to modal jazz to jazz fusion, being a pioneering force in each of these genres. Davis’ album, In a Silent Way, is a fascinating window into his relentless creativity, as John McLaughlin’s guitar work on the album broadens the sonic palette of jazz in new and fresh ways. Both The Beatles and The Beach Boys transcended the pop limitations of their earliest work, creating two of the most artistically significant albums of the 1960’s, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pet Sounds. Bob Dylan famously evolved from his acoustic folk routes to the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited, alienating and frustrating loyal fans along the way. In more recent times, the British alternative rock band Radiohead followed a similar artistic trajectory. In the 1990’s they made two of the best guitar-driven alternative rock albums of decade, The Bends and OK Computer. Then, in the new millenium they released Kid A, a musical masterpiece with few discernable guitar parts and heavy use of electronic, ambient, and jazz sonic textures. While the evolution of these artists and bands are well-documented, the story and music of the band Talk Talk remains relatively unknown outside of circles of musicians and music critics.
The Story of Talk Talk
Talk Talk’s debut album, The Party’s Over, was released by EMI in July 1982. Talk Talk’s synthpop sound firmly fit within the zeitgeist of the time, comparing favorably to bands like Duran Duran. One of their earliest singles, “Talk Talk,” epitomizes this era in music. Early Talk Talk fits well with the new wave of A Flock of Seagulls on a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City soundtrack. Their second album, It’s My Life (1984), includes the title track, one of their biggest commercial successes, a song later covered by the band No Doubt. Listeners of these early singles, while surely struck by the band’s pop sensibilities and lead singer Mark Hollis’ distinct vocals, could hardly have guessed the musical trajectory of Talk Talk
Another early single, “Such a Shame,” begins to show their artistic potential. The music video seems to intentionally spoof the lip-syncing common in the time, a possible sign of Talk Talk’s willingness to challenge pop conventions. Additionally, the musical break in the middle of the song features a solo of distorted noises and squealing feedback over a bass groove and percussive drumming.
Talk Talk’s first artistic breakthrough occurred in 1986 with the release of The Colour of Spring. Different from their earlier synthpop work, this album is classified as art rock or baroque pop.1 With only eight tracks, three of which are longer than six minutes, the album clearly deviates from commercial norms. However, two of the tracks (“Life’s What You Make It” and “Living In Another World”) were released to popular and commercial success. The liner notes to the album include an extensive list of studio musicians who contributed to the denser sound. Most notable is the appearance of Steve Winwood, former member of the rock supergroup Blind Faith, on organ for several tracks. With the success of The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk had the financial backing of their record label to create a follow up album that pushed the evolution of their sound even further.
The Sound of Talk Talk
The story of the next two albums, especially of their final album Laughing Stock, has become a mixture of history and myth. As The Quietus documents, the real story is a complicated narrative of an artist, Mark Hollis, with a singular vision and record executives at both EMI and Polydor frustrated by a product they could not sell or market. Whatever the exact story, out of the next two recording sessions, ones apparently conducted primarily in the dark, Talk Talk created two albums that essentially invented the “post-rock” genre, a sound channeled by Radiohead on the album Kid A to much critical acclaim nearly 12 years later.
The album Spirit of Eden (1988) opens with the track “The Rainbow,” a nine-minute long composition that begins with over two minutes of ambient sounds, noises, mellow horns, and distorted guitar sounds. Buried in the mix one hears faint sounds reminiscent of falling rain and insects chirping. Just before the three minute mark, an electric guitar riff begins followed by a wild and raw harmonica sound, a bass line, and drums. The vocals, which have a kind of stream-of-consciousness feel to the lyric writing, begin about three and a half minutes into the track. After several abstract verses about justice, fairness, and repentance, the song shifts abruptly at the six minute mark– alternating between ambient sections and loud bursts of sound. The track eventually ends in much the same way it began with colors of sound drifting over an atmospheric soundscape.
The inability to market and sell Spirit of Eden caused the record label EMI and Talk Talk to part ways. Talk Talk ended up signing with Polydor and received considerable financial backing to work on their next artistic masterpiece, Laughing Stock (1991), an album routinely given the highest praise by musicians and critics alike.2 The album liner notes credit an extensive list of studio musicians and a wide range of instrumentation: drums, harmonica, percussion, guitar, piano, organ, harmonium, viola, cello, trumpet, flugelhorn, contrabass, and clarinet. The recording sessions for the album were built primarily on extensive improvisation. The resulting album was therefore constructed using tape splices and edits, meaning that the overwhelming majority of recorded music was left on the cutting floor.3 This approach to engineering the music creates jarring and drastic shifts in each track on the album. One of the few sonic equivalents to Talk Talk’s final album is Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way (1969)– the track “Shhh/Peaceful” utilizes many of the same recording techniques and musical concepts. Even though Laughing Stock is highly regarded by critics today, many critics panned it in its time and the music was not marketable. Furthermore, due to the extensive studio editing needed to create the album, the band was unable to tour or perform the music live. It became the last album ever recorded by Talk Talk, and the members of the band have since retired to silence and seclusion.4
The centerpiece of Laughing Stock is the nine-and-a-half minute track, “After the Flood.” The song begins with the jarring tape splice between the noise rock ending of the preceding track “Ascension Day” and the gentle piano beginning of “After the Flood.” The song then creates a slow build over a bass and drum groove until an organ becomes prominent in the mix. Right after the two-minute mark Mark Hollis’ distinct vocals start with snippets of words floating through the air. On this album, Hollis’ lyrical approach compares to the action painting of Jackson Pollock. It is as if Hollis is tossing words at a canvas in an attempt to express something buried deep in the subconscious. The middle of the track has a distorted and noisy solo on a single note for nearly one minute. Near the end of the song, the listener encounters some of the most clear and discernable lyrics on the entire album: “Shake my head/turn my face to the floor/dead to respect/to respect to be born/lest we forget who lay.” Yet these lyrics leave the listener grasping for a meaning as the song vamps out over an ending that reprises the beginning.
Spirituality in Talk Talk
With both album and song titles alluding to the biblical stories of Creation and Flood, one would naturally assume that Talk Talk intend to evoke spiritual themes with their music. This may in fact be the case, but Mark Hollis’ lyric writing is so opaque as to make it impossible to draw conclusions about any particular message. As with many great works of art, the artist often leaves the interpretation open to the audience. Given the extreme silence of the band members in regards to the creation and meaning of their music, listeners should be content to simply find whatever meanings they can in the music. However, in the case of Talk Talk, it may be best to appreciate the creative and aesthetic brilliance of the music without dwelling on whether or not the music contains any particular religious or spiritual messages.
While Talk Talk’s final two albums are admittedly difficult to listen to at points, the song “I Believe In You” achieves a level of beauty rarely attained in popular music. The final minute and a half are utterly sublime as Hollis gently whispers the word “spirit” over an organ riff backed by vocal harmonies.