Timeless spirit: The legacy of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock

Santeri Palkivaara revisits Talk Talk’s final two albums and finds music that paint a whole rainbow of emotions and moods – from serene and soothing to chaotic and explosive

Santeri Palkivaara revisits Talk Talk’s final two albums and finds music that paint a whole rainbow of emotions and moods – from serene and soothing to chaotic and explosive

Karstein Volle

The end of the 1980s saw many changes in the world–  the fall of the Berlin Wall and Apartheid ending in South Africa. In America, the burgeoning grunge scene was preparing to give an alternative to the prevailing hair metal of the 80s, while in England, the Madchester scene was raving to the blend of psychedelic rock and acid house in clubs like the Hacienda. It was against this backdrop of change that Talk Talk, one of England’s new wave of synth pop-bands, transformed themselves into the jazzy post-rockers of Spirit of Eden (1988). Spirit of Eden has become a record known for it’s dry, timeless quality and influence, even though regarded as total commercial suicide at the time.

Spirit of Eden has become a record known for it’s dry, timeless quality and influence, even though regarded as  total commercial suicide at the time

The hints were already apparent that change was coming on Talk Talk’s previous album,1986’s Colour of Spring, but neither the fans or their record label had a real clue what was coming next. Talk Talk’s singer-songwriter Mark Hollis had a growing frustration towards the music industry and their record label, Polydor. This lead the group to sign to the more jazz-oriented imprint, Verve, to release their final album, Laughing Stock in 1992. Apart from a mainly jazz ouvre, Verve had also released albums by a certain Velvet Underground in the 1960s.

The form

The tracks on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are long, dynamically unpredictable – including odd time signatures and polyrhythms, while the lyrics hold a visionary, poetic quality. The two albums paint a whole rainbow of emotions and moods from serene and soothing to chaotic and explosive – sometimes within the same song. The tracks undulate from one to another like rivers flowing into the sea, leaving you with a sense of puzzlement. Both of these albums contain 6 tracks each that don’t tick below 5 minutes of length.

The overall lack of traditional verse/chorus-structure is just one of the factors that make these albums stand the test of time. I can honestly say I’ve been listening to these albums hundreds of times for the past 10 years and still with every listen, I’m finding new details, parts I didn’t remember being there at all. The effect is the opposite of what a big part of the music on radio nowadays tends to thrive for. This can be partially credited to the unusually large amount of improvisation captured in the recording process of these albums, inspired by the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other jazz and impressionist artists.

“I’m really quite happy just to play one note, and just to hit it at different volume levels. And just, y’know, see how long it will resonate for, before it stops.”
-Mark Hollis

The biblical prophecies of Mark Hollis

The lyrics on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are poetical, with repeated listens (and reads) recommended to get the words to open up. The articulation of the lyrics is mumbly but full of penetrating emotion. Hollis’ approach was always seeing the voice as one of the instruments, but in his case it does not mean that the lyrics would lack any context. Instead paying attention to the lyrics in a literary sense, will give you a whole new level to enjoy the albums by.

Hollis’ approach was always seeing the voice as one of the instruments, but in his case it does not mean that the lyrics would lack any context. Instead paying attention to the lyrics in a literary sense, will give you a whole new level to enjoy the albums by

Laughing Stock is full of biblical references. ‘After the Flood’, which unfortunately has become ever more relevant with the escalating wave of global warming related phenomena taking place.

“Sang soulless loud

Herding step on flesh

And nothing else

To well

To drown and drown

Sleight of reason

How they come

Cain in number

Alone

The crowd

Spurning step by static

Blame something else

Thirsting

Within without

Sighted

Weeded

How they run

Slain in number”

The title of Laughing Stock brings to mind the word “livestock”, an old term for cattle. Meat overproduction being the number one problem accelerating the climate change, it’s hard to take this notion as a mere coincidence. Was the Mark Hollis from 30 years ago a conscious vegan trying to warn us of what horrors were to come?

Was the Mark Hollis from 30 years ago a conscious vegan trying to warn us of what horrors were to come?

Out of time

The approach to arranging on these albums is mostly minimalistic and relies heavily on acoustic instruments. Every note is carefully selected or edited into place from hours of recorded material.

There’s a pastoral, gospel-type of feel to the songs, which concludes on Spirit of Eden’s ‘Wealth’:

“Create upon my breath

Create reflection on my flesh

The wealth of love

Bear me a witness to the years

Take my freedom”

The feeling is often amped-up by extensive use of silences between notes, chords and the songs themselves.

With Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk had abandoned the synths and drum machines, the building blocks of their earlier success for an organic sound created in the studio. These records are in opposition to the digital, reverb-laden soundscape of their era. No gated snares here.

However, what had remained from the previous Talk Talk albums was the primeval quality of Hollis’ vocal performance and melodies, which despite the long and quiet improvisational sections, stand in the centre of the arrangements.

It’s been said the final Talk Talk albums were mostly recorded in a dark room, only lit by seas of candles. Insider legend has it that Hollis used to put on strobe lights for hours on end while recording, leading the atmosphere of the sessions to edgy and abstract conclusions. Guest musicians were invited into the studio under these special circumstances, having to play without the chance to hear the other parts of the tracks while recording their own. This resulted in material that could be described futuristic or to be at the very least heavily out of it’s time.

Guest musicians were invited into the studio under these special circumstances, having to play without the chance to hear the other parts of the tracks while recording their own

The legacy

It feels obvious now that with these two albums, Talk Talk reached a level of artistic success as much as a textural and lyrical complexity most artists can only dream of achieving during their lifetime. Considering this, it is difficult to see why these albums were perceived as failures at the time. Despite some good reviews, these records had the effect of withdrawing Talk Talk from the mainstream, right back to an uncertain underground. Was it the lack of touring in support of these releases or was the world simply not ready for these albums yet? As the reputation and myth surrounding these recordings grow, is it true that these albums were deemed ‘unmarketable’ at the time?

My personal relationship with these albums has been a gradually deepening process, a slow-burning love affair, born out of a daze. To me these albums represent a notion of hope in their sombre and abstract glory. They are of a gold standard – in the same way the band itself looked up to the music of say Miles Davis at the time.

My personal relationship with these albums has been a gradually deepening process, a slow-burning love affair, born out of a daze

Apart from these two albums having influenced bands from Radiohead to Sigur Rós and beyond, Talk Talk’s name and later music is nowadays synonymous with the band being seen as influencers of the genre post-rock. Pitchfork recently paid respect to later-era Talk Talk, with Spirit of Eden featured at #24 on their “200 best albums of the 1980s” list.

Mark Hollis himself retired from music some 20 years ago, leaving behind only one solo album – Mark Hollis  (1998) – an album which carries on in the same spirit as the last two Talk Talk records. The enduring nature and influence of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock will surely grow as the years pass, with the only reservation being if future generations will have the patience or wherewithal to listen. At this time, it seems they will.

 

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