Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden: Round 38, Nick’s choice


Tom’s “draw a pair of random years” theme has become a favourite; there’s no squeezing something to fit a theme, no talking your way around it – something was either released in the year you picked, or it wasn’t. I drew 1988 and 1996 this time, and had to choose an album from one and a track from another, and see if I could somehow connect them.

My first instincts for albums from 1996 all proved to be too long – Orbital, DJ Shadow, Underworld, Maxwell – due to the mid-90s fetish for squeezing as much music onto a compact disc as possible, or else had already been played at Devon Record Club – Aphex Twin, Screaming Trees. My first instincts from 1988 suffered the same two fates – Public Enemy too long, My Bloody Valentine played by Tom some months ago. What’s a guy to do?

Choose the dismayingly obvious pick that he’d forgotten about, clearly, that follows on from something played at our last meeting. But it took me asking for recommendations via Twitter for me to be reminded that Spirit of Eden came out in 1988, which seems like an incredible oversight given that, at a push, I’d probably pick it as my favourite record (though I kind of dislike the idea of ‘favourite’ records, in an unequivocal, all-time-number-one way). I have, after all, written reams and reams of fawning, hyperbolic guff about this record, this strange dive headlong into the avant-garde that got Talk Talk dropped and sued by their record label for delivering a willfully uncommercial album (the lawsuit was thrown out, but inspired a clause that became common in major label record deals binding artists to the promise of producing sellable music).

Nearly ten years on from writing the above hagiography, I’m much more pragmatic about Spirit of Eden – yes, I love it, and I like to play it sans distraction, loud, in a dimly lit room, so as to get the full experience, but I’m pragmatic enough to admit that I rarely ever get around to actually engineering that kind of listening experience (once or twice a year if that). I’d also probably hold up Laughing Stock as a stranger, more rewarding, more cathartic record these days, and, conversely, The Colour of Spring as a more frequently-turned-to, easily-consumed album that gets part way at least towards delivering some of the same emotional and aesthetic payoff.

A lot of people talk about how beautiful and sparse Spirit of Eden is, but for me its about the grooves and the noise – the crazy, over-driven harmonica, the heavy blues-y guitar riffs, the thick, liquid pulse of bass and drums. Certainly, some passages are extremely beautiful (the hushed choirs that close I Believe In You), but others – the crazed, thunder and lightning drums of Desire – are incredibly powerful and visceral. I find the whole thing incredibly moving: when Hollis sings “I just can’t bring myself to see it starting” in I Believe In You, I feel like my heart’s going to explode.

Spirit of Eden, as well as being the first “holy grail” of Devon Record Club that we’ve played thus far (that is, a record that we all own), is a fantastic (almost) singular experience, and I love it to bits. But I’m not sure I’m quite as passionate about it as I was a decade ago.

(Oh yeah, for reference, I chose A Survey by Tortoise as my track from 1996. The connection? Both albums have 6 tracks, take liberally from jazz, ambient, and experimental music as well as rock, and, well, Tortoise follow on pretty linearly from Talk Talk’s influence in many ways.)

Rob listened: Well I never. Just a fortnight after hearing the Mark Hollis album for the first time, and finding in it an agreeable contrast with earlier Talk Talk, and mere days after describing ‘Spirit of Eden’ as “the most consistently disappointing record I own” lucky me to get yet another chance to approach its sweeping foothills once again. Lucky, lucky me.

As amusing as I would find it to really stick the boot into ‘Spirit of Eden’ (much as its adherents fawn and weep over it, I bet they use it more to test their hi-fi set-ups), if I’m honest, I can’t. I don’t dislike it. Bits of it are nice. Some bits of it sound lovely. On the whole though, it bores me every time I hear it. And every time I hear it, cold, hollow, I get more irritated by it, moving farther away from its supposed majesty when I’m expected to grow closer. One more listen down, one more step in the opposite direction.

Graham Listened: Like buses, you wait until rounds 37 and 38, then 2 come at once. Nick has already described much of how I feel about this record and done it much better than I ever could. One thing that I’ll never get back though, was the first (virginal?) listen to this record. I came to Talk Talk late in the day, so there was never that rush to get the new album and listen to it until you convinced yourself it was good.  In my little flat in Exeter with my newly purchased “high-end” Goodmans CD player, I played this for the first time and was truly astonished. I went through a period when I would play it only when I could dedicate 100% attention, but following counselling, I am now able to play it as background music on the rare occasion.

Tom Listened: I have always been disappointed by the way I am so easily influenced by the opinions of others. Until Nick brought Spirit of Eden to record club, I have always considered it a near perfect album. However, having heard Rob’s enthusiastic dismissal of Talk Talk’s finest moment at record club made me begin to doubt myself…and I began to hear the record in a different way. Rather than submit to its glorious soundscapes and meticulously constructed songs I caught glimpses of what Rob was hearing. And, for a moment or two, it bothered me. Until the breathtaking Desire confirmed what I had always suspected – in this case he’s just plain wrong!

Spirit – how could I have ever doubted you?

Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis – Round 37 – Graham’s Choice

Keen to stick to the theme (ahem…), I surprised myself by purchasing a copy of this album just a week before this week’s meeting. I’ve had copies in various forms for over 10 years, but never had a physical copy of the icing on the cake of my Talk Talk, post ‘Colour of Spring’ collection.  I also felt somewhat obliged to offer something by the way of an antidote to the distress I had caused in Round 36.

I pretty much ignored Mark Hollis and his Talk Talk colleagues until the early/mid 90’s. I had them typecast as New Romantic wannabees, though I had heard a couple of singles off their second album which sounded a bit more interesting. Still, not enough to persuade me into investigating further. I then started reading various articles which were heralding the band in a far different light.

I began by buying their third album, ‘The Colour of Spring’ (1986), which immediately ripped up all my preconceptions about them. Probably a bit too mature a sound for me to have fully appreciated in 1986, but it I loved it and found it immediately accessible. The direction they had begun with ‘The Colour of Spring’ continued on their last 2 albums which are amongst my favourite records of all time. When I consider why I don’t feel the need to buy much music anymore, maybe it’s because after hearing ‘Spirit of Eden’ and ‘Laughing Stock’, I simply didn’t need to. However, as my wife hates these 2 albums and is sent in to a rage by Mark Hollis’ one and only solo album, I don’t get to listen to them that often!

Until the very recent emergence of some new work, this album seemed to be the conclusion of Mark Hollis’ journey from ‘The Colour of Spring’, and his final offering as a solo artist. After ‘Laughing Stock’ it seemed unlikely that Mark could produce an even more stripped back and sparse sounding album, yet still make it sound beautiful and immersive. It took 7 years, but in 1998 he more than achieved that with this album. There is not quite the ‘drive’ and short-lived drama to some tracks which we heard on the last two Talk Talk albums, but that allows a more restful vibe to run throughout the album. There are some real raw jazzy moments, but nothing too “noodley”. As for the rest, just as you think it’s folksy, it’s classical, it’s ambient etc., etc. It’s probably easier to say what it’s not in some circumstances. If I did yoga, I’m sure this would be a great soundtrack.

I’ll admit that ‘A Life (1895-1915)’ is a track that I’m not in love with. It strays too much in to conceptual territory for me, and we all know where that can lead. But the stark beauty of the opener ‘The Colour of Spring’ (a very loose reprise of April 5th, from, confusingly, the album ‘The Colour of Spring’), is so disarming, I’ll put up with anything after that.

Nick listened: It’s fair to say that I know late-period Talk Talk pretty well: I’ve written about Spirit of Eden extensively, and I even pitched a 33 & 1/3 book about it a few years ago (and got through the first couple of rounds of applications). I’ve described Laughing Stock, Talk Talk’s final record, as the only truly “profound” music I’ve ever experienced, but that was in a heady moment. (Nothing, ever, anywhere, is truly “profound”. Possibly.) So, predictably, I know Mark Hollis’ solo album very well, too.

Like Graham, I don’t actually listen to Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock all that often, and I listen to this album even less. They’re all powerful, austere creations that I feel demand a certain amount of reverence and attention and ritual. I feel vaguely silly saying that, but it’s true. Plus my wife doesn’t like his voice!

Hollis’ eponymous solo album does indeed go further into considered minimalism than even Laughing Stock. Hollis apparently took himself off for several years and taught himself formal composition (and presumably went to the cinema and walked his dog and went to parents’ evenings etc etc etc too), so his solo album, unlike SoE and LS, which were edited together digitally from dozens or hundreds of hours of improvised explorations as far as I understand it, is actually a very different beast, despite similar timbres and ambiences. It never truly roils and thunders and screams like its older siblings, never surrenders to drama and noise and chaos, and it doesn’t wallow in the darkest recesses of human emotion. It also, consequently, doesn’t ever quite reach the absolute peaks of transcendent beauty either (beauty being, as with so many things, so often, largely a relative thing – exposed only to beauty and never to ugliness, how would you know what was beautiful?). Instead, its content to just exist to float, to be beautiful sans context. The minimal, heart-stroking piano of the opening track, the tap-tapping jazz percussion waves later on, the spaces, the ages, the woodwinds that sound like The Clangers, the lyrics about (obliquely, possibly) moving back to London so your kids can go to the cinema more often, or about dying just before the Great War, or about… what are they even about?

Apparently this album was recorded entirely live, in one room, with two microphones for stereo imaging, the instruments and their players positioned just so in order to avoid needing overdubs. It’s quite remarkable, and crystalline, and delicate, and strange, and precious. But I probably only play it once ever few years.

Tom Listened: In some ways I admire Graham’s chutzpah! To suggest his theme and then bring this was either a move of complete genius or utter contempt for the rules. If nothing else, he is certainly unpredictable.

Mark Hollis is an album I have owned since it was released and I am a huge fan of late period Talk Talk. But I have hardly ever listened to this particular album, and after hearing it again the other night, I remember why. It’s a beautiful, stunningly composed record by a wonderful song-writer. It is also, for me, the most claustrophobic record I have ever heard…it seems to suck all the air out of the room and, in much the same way as These New Puritans or Sunn O))) (I kid you not) the atmosphere it inhabits is just too unsettling for me to truly enjoy the experience. I think I’ll stick to Spirit of Eden, Laughing Stock and my Clangers box set for the time being and maybe go back to this when I am over-the-moon happy or suicidally depressed!

Rob listened: I don’t get Talk Talk. I want to, or at least i’m prepared to, but despite trying reasonably hard, it’s never happened.  I’d go so far as to say ‘Spirit of Eden’ is the most consistently disappointing record I own. Time after time i’ve gone back to it hoping to find the profundity, the worlds within worlds that others find therein, but I get less and less each time. I’d never heard ‘Mark Hollis’ before and, i’m pleased to say, I liked it more than any of the Talk Talk records I’ve spent time with. I found its baroque beauty and almost stifling intimacy quite entrancing. SInce hearing it i’ve been back to ‘Laughing Stock’, which seems to me much closer to this than to the Talk Talk records that preceded it, and I think perhaps somewhere between this and that lies the Talk Talk I may be able to get along with.