Remembering Mark Hollis, Pop Music's Quiet Rebel

Before his death this week at the age of 64, the Talk Talk songwriter made a few albums that felt like a secret scripture. Then he left it all behind.
February 26, 2019, 11:15pm

The opening moments of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock arrive with the quiet drama of a curtain dropping. Soft amplifier feedback hangs in near-silence for 18 seconds before a tremolo-coated chord enters the frame. Strings seem to rise out of nothingness like a mist, dissipating without ever taking on any tangible shape. A voice, somewhere between a lounge singer and a wounded animal, creeps from a low whisper to a piercing shout. It’s beautiful, but haunting—lush with detail in a way that still, somehow, evokes a deep, all-consuming emptiness.

It’s an album that reveals more with each rotation, its formless pieces pulsing and breathing like some constantly shifting life form, never quite the same as the last time I encountered it. Since its release in 1991, it’s gone on to become one of the most influential recordings in underground music, and lauded as one of the greatest albums of all time. That this monumental work could have come from a band who were originally condemned as Duran Duran knock-offs only adds to its enigma.

Mark Hollis died yesterday surrounded by just as much mystery as he carried in life (as of this writing, even the illness that he was suffering from remains unknown). Already, the outpouring of emotion from the music world has been staggering, particularly from artists in the experimental community. Among my circle of friends, his music has always been whispered about as if it were some secret scripture; the one who originally showed me Laughing Stock claimed he had listened to it every single day for years.

Talk Talk were always at odds with their own success, an attitude that’s cemented their reputations as icons of individualism in music. Hollis regularly acted hostile toward the press (not to mention his own fans), and actively worked to break away from the polished sound and image he had been saddled with when the band signed with EMI around the time of their debut. Although Hollis’ pained, wailing vocals makes sense in the context of Talk Talk’s early new wave roots, they weren’t enough to convince the British press. U.K. punk magazines derided them as “Typical Typical”; their singles floundered at home while charting overseas.

Not much is known about Hollis’ early life, but based on the few snippets that he ever revealed, he struggled to tow the line in school, and spent his youth playing punk music and working factory jobs. He talked in interviews about how Singin’ In the Rain was one of his all-time favorite movies; just like that film, Hollis’ artistic vision was far more dreamy than outsiders might realize on first glance. Hollis was considering Talk Talk in more abstract terms even from the very beginning—on their debut press cycle, Mark Hollis sang the praises of Shostakovich and drew parallels between his band’s bright synth-pop and the instrumental interplay of Coltrane.

Over the course of his time with EMI, Hollis struggled against perceptions of his band, pushing their sound further and further away from the mainstream; ironically, however, he was only able to truly reject the mainstream music industry once he had conquered it. The Colour of Spring, the band’s third album, signalled their first major move away from dance-pop, falling more in line with the sophisticated, futuristic sounds of artists like Kate Bush and Tears for Fears. It revealed Hollis’ taste for wilted ambience, as heard on melancholy songs like “Chameleon Day” or “April 5th.” Propelled by the single “Life’s What You Make It,” The Colour of Spring became an international hit, finally earning Talk Talk the respect of their own countrymen and granting Hollis the financial freedom that he needed to make what would ultimately become his defining statements.

The Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, the two albums that Hollis produced in the wake of The Colour of Spring, sound like the work of an entirely different band: one that could have set this music to tape today. Rather than revolving around rhythm and melody, the songs act as environments unto themselves, drifting about freely as Hollis wrenches every note from his voice with an intensity that makes his lyrics as cryptically indecipherable as they are beside the point. Whether it’s the quivering harmonica that opens “The Rainbow,” the radiant choir that appears at the end of “I Believe in You,” or the dissonant thing that emerges four minutes into “After the Flood” and sustains itself for an entire minute (Hollis claims that it’s two saxophones playing at once, but no saxophone credit appears on the album), every single sound is bursting with life. It feels utterly organic despite the fact that Hollis literally spent years in a dark room assembling them from hours and hours of recording sessions.

These two albums (as well as his incredible self-titled 1998 solo album) converge Hollis’ love of free jazz and the classical avant-garde into the improvised, soul-baring music he had always wanted to make. Neither sold particularly well of course, which only further helped to solidify Hollis’ mission of pointing a middle-finger at pop music in favor of independence and the search for truth. This kind of individualist attitude has become a template from which generations of artists have looked to for guidance, from underground heroes like Broken Social Scene and Califone to mainstream breakthroughs like Radiohead and No Doubt.

After these three paradigm-defining releases, Hollis left the music world completely so he could spend more time with his family. Hollis spent his years trying to undo all the assumptions his peers had about who he was and what his work meant, arriving at something as close as one can get to music that feels as of the Earth as it is from the soul. To then give up the very process of recording music to simply be with loved ones says more about what Hollis saw in the world than any acclaimed masterpiece ever could. Hollis sought to live his life as an individual, and in doing so taught us that no labels are impossible to overcome in the journey to finding oneself. Hollis wanted us to see him for who he really was—just like any one of us.

Sam Goldner is a writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of Sam's work on Twitter.