Mark Hollis must be one of the biggest enigmas in music history. In the beginning of the 80s he released with Talk Talk great pop albums that yielded hits such as “Today”, “It’s My Life” and “Such A Shame”, all with accompanying music videos that hinted to the fact that behind what seemed like another synth band there is a smart and unique musician who reluctantly fills the role of a pop star required in the MTV age. The story unfolded a little more with the release of “The Color of Spring”. Some of the songs on that album, such as “April 5th” and “Chameleon Days” indicated that there is a lot more to the band than good synth-based songs. Hollis was listening at that time to modern classical music and composers such as Bartok and Debussy. He loved the abstract nature of their compositions and revealed that the use of synths in Talk Talk’s first two albums was only a necessity to reduce recording costs in order to realize the orchestrated songs. “The Color of Spring” was a big success for Talk Talk, yielding the hits “Living in Another World” and “Life’s What You Make It“.
But as different as the album was from their previous records, nothing prepared the music world for their next album, a milestone not only in 80s music, but to many the album that started post-rock. “Spirit of Eden”, released in 1988, is truly a masterpiece of popular music. To me it belongs in the pantheon of albums that showcase a band at the peak of their creativity and using the recording studio as an instrument, much like “Revolver” and “The Dark Side of the Moon”. At the time of its recording Hollis was influenced not only by modern classical composers, but by other albums that demonstrated sonic experimentation such as Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” and Can’s “Tago Mago”.
Hollis had a vision for the album, with the idea of bringing various musicians to the studio and with very little direction allowing them to express themselves on their instrument for a few days. Later in the process pieces of music would be put together, cutting and splicing the recorded material until they fit together. In essence the composition of the tunes was done mostly after the recording was complete. This process required extensive recording time, and for the engineering task Hollis brought in Phill Brown, who was a recording engineer at Island Studios in the early 70s and worked with Hendrix (All Along the Watchtower), Traffic (Dear Mr Fantasy), Bob Marley (No Woman No Cry) and Stomu Yamashta (Go). I highly recommend Phill Brown’s book “Are We Still Rolling?” in which he tells insightful stories from his rich recording career. Phill Brown described the recording sessions for the “Spirit of Eden” as being performed in almost complete dark spare strobe lights: “Meticulous care was given to each part, and almost all parts were recorded individually, one at a time. Over 90% of the recorded material was not used. In the editing process many recorded parts were placed in places different than the ones they were recorded to. Amazingly the songs all sound very intimate as if a band is playing together.”
The album was recorded in Wessex studios in London, were Queen recorded “Day at the Races”, the Clash “London Calling”, the Sex Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks”. The studio had a large room, making it somewhat strange for each individual musician to record his part. The list of musicians who participated in the album is impressive and among others include Danny Thompson on upright Bass, Mark Feltham on Harmonica, Nigel Kennedy on Violin and Robbie McIntosh on Dobro.
The lyrics that Hollis wrote for the songs are so abstract that you find yourself simply listening to them without understanding their meaning. Hollis talked about this in an interview: “I’ve always written lyrics from a phonetic point of view. I mean its always bothered us that vocals are set too loud in the mix anyway and no matter what work was been put in the backing it just becomes subservient”. In his opinion vocals serve the same role as any other instrument. That trend continued to a greater extent with their next and last album, “Laughing Stock”, released in 1991. Following its release Mark Hollis simply quit the music world, and spare very rare appearances and one solo album in the following decade, has shown no inclination to attempt additional recordings.
I encourage anyone who listens to “Spirit of Eden” to do so the whole way through without interruption, as it has a strong quality of drawing you in, making you forget about the outside world for a blissful 40 minutes. I could have picked any of the songs on this album, but here is a personal favorite, “Inheritance”, the song that opens the second side on the vinyl LP.
Lilac glistening foal
Ten as one
On the breeze they flow
When it gets my heart out
When it gets my heart out
Don’t you know where life has gone
Burying progress in the clouds
How we learn to linger on
Head in sand
Expecting the dour
To redress with open arms
Ascension in incentive end