Escape – total, unblinking, unerring, irreversible escape – is a basic human fantasy. The desire to disappear, to be elsewhere and other, is why we drink to excess, or take the drugs we told ourselves and our parents we’d never take. It is why we plunge ourselves into debt just for a weekend watering someone else’s indoor plants in a Berlin apartment. And it is why, in quiet, unguarded moments, late at night and at our most alone, we imagine just how it feels to slowly, ever so slowly, walk into the sea, never once looking back, not waving but drowning.
Twenty years ago, former Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis released his eponymous debut solo album. In one way or another, it comes close to replicating the internal weightlessness that comes with embracing your own imagined oblivion. Sparse, stark and suffused with a resigned sadness, it was his only fully-fledged solo project before he removed himself from the music world equation. But before all of that it’s important to take a very brief look at who Hollis was, and why any of us should care.
Over five ornate, intricate and intimate albums, Talk Talk created and curated a uniquely lush world of their own. They looked like your average 80s alternative pop group – big hair! Rockstar shades! – and initially sounded like it too. And then things changed, with each album getting increasingly insular, resulting in a back catalogue that you can hear as a study in how to turn your back on stardom, a perfect example of artistic determination taking on the rigours of the system and winning. Albums like 1988’s Spirit of Eden and its predecessor, the two million copies-selling The Colour of Spring, are lush amalgamations of synth-pop ambient, jazz, classical and the kind of pastorally-focused English interpretation of rock that brings to mind sunrises over green belt towns. At their very best, on songs like “After the Flood”, “I Believe in You”, or the No Doubt-covered “It’s My Life”, they fused a genuine pop sensibility with the kind of radical experimentation more suited to back issues of The Wire than headline festival slots.
Straddling two worlds is never easy, and perturbed by what they saw as a lack marketability, the band entered into a contractual dispute with bigwigs at EMI in the late 80s. It was a drawn out, unpleasant affair, resulting in them signing with Polydor for their final record, 1991’s deeply rich and critically-adored Laughing Stock. And then… nothing. Talk Talk disbanded the following year. There were no tell-all interviews, no grand proclamations. No reasons or rationales. Talk Talk careered into silence, just like that.
Such is life. Bands break up each and every day, as Stephen Malkmus so famously nearly put it. Thing is…. The break-up is often short-lived. The lure of one more show, one more trawl around the festival circuit, one more 12-date arena tour is difficult to hide from. Whether its an ATP-sponsored avant-rock outfit shuffling onstage to run through their difficult second album in full, or LCD Soundsystem promising to disband approximately 16 times before playing a gig on Elon Musk’s Hyperloop and putting out a new record that sounds a bit like the older ones but not as good, a genuine sense of a musical ending is becoming harder to find.
A lack of enchantment in the present; a desire to wilfully confuse memory with youth; a proper final payday for a bunch of blokes who’ve lived precariously off eBay for the past decade – there any many reasons why the reformation scene is bigger than ever. One thing however is certain: the musical comeback – be it a faithful reproduction of the old favourites, or a dull and dismal attempt to do something new – is more often than not a disappointing embarrassment. In this context – and in most contexts, really – Mark Hollis stands out. This isn’t to say that Mark Hollis is a total anomaly – Bill Withers and Captain Beefheart are proof that with enough willpower, one can escape the music industry for good. But Mark Hollis is perhaps the only musician to come back as strong as ever, after Talk Talk, to then walk away again.
Partly inspired by Roland Leighton, a British poet and soldier immortalised in Vera Brittain’s turn of the century memoir Testament of Youth, the solo album from Mark Hollis wasn’t, perhaps, what Talk Talk fans had been anticipating after a prolonged absence. Described by AllMusic reviewer Jason Ankeny as, “quite possibly the most quiet and intimate record ever made,” Mark Hollis is an otherworldly exercise in restraint. Across its eight tracks, things unfurl slowly, minimally, with silence hovering over the entire thing. The songs are both hardly there and incredibly powerful.
Like And Their Refinement of the Decline by Stars of the Lid, With the Artists by Rhythm & Sound, or even Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely, Mark Hollis comes to life in the latest of early hours, when there can be no positive explanation as to why you’re still up. Like those albums, the power of Mark Hollis comes from the use of space. “Inside Looking Out” and “Westward Bound” are prime examples of what happens when an artist strips away anything remotely extraneous; barely there fragments of guitars, thin as candy floss on a summer’s evening, roll around a voice as pure as it ever was – just a little less forceful, a little less showy, a little less likely to feature on Top of the Pops.
That isn’t to say the whole thing is as naked as a Nick Drake album. “The Daily Planet”, for example, comes on like Robert Wyatt as his busiest; woozy, jazzy washes which layer themselves over and over a submerged vocal that every so often shines through, sounding like the arrival of a much-longed-for spring. Mark Hollis is an immaculate and worthy successor to a body of work that can, at times, be almost overwhelmingly incredible. It deserves to be thought of with as much respect and reverence as anything Talk Talk did. Which is saying something.
But after that solo album – which debuted at number 53 on the UK charts and slipped out of them a week after – he never released another. He never played live again, either. Just before the record’s release, Hollis told a Dutch magazine that, “this material isn't suited to play live.” And it is hard to see how Mark Hollis could ever be replicated outside of a studio – something about it couldn’t, or wouldn’t translate to a room bursting with expectation.
Aside from an appearance on Unkle’s Psyence Fiction (he later asked to have his name removed from the credits), some arrangement work on Swedish singer Anja Garbarek’s 2001 album Smiling & Waving and a short, oddly bouncy piece of incidental instrumental music for US political TV thriller, Boss, that was it. Mark Hollis slunk away, silently shunning the limelight even for one last payday.
Since then, Hollis’ whereabouts have become unknown. There haven’t been any reformations or hits of reunions. The music – from Talk Talk’s debut single, the absurdly confident romantic synth-stomp of 1982’s “Mirror Man” through to Mark Hollis – is still there, ripe and ready for revision. The work remains, even when the artist is no longer present. And the work, surely, should remain the important thing.
The album’s closer, “A New Jerusalem” ends with Hollis asking “Do you see?” over the kind of barely-there instrumentation that’s receded further and further into the record’s horizon. What we see is an an artist delivering one final perfect statement, and exiting the stage for good, pulling the curtain down over his own career. More than that, what we see is an artist walking slowly, ever-so-slowly, into the sea, never once looking back, not waving but drowning.
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