A sacred voice: Mark Hollis sang the English gospel

Talk Talk began as 80s synth-pop stalwarts, but Hollis developed not only what became known as post-rock, but his own transcendent music

Alexis Petridis: ‘The reluctant pop star who redefined rock’
Jude Rogers: ‘Mark Hollis the ethereal outsider’

I had listened to Talk Talk before, I’m sure, but the moment I first truly heard them was in 1989, in a small room in Bristol, when a friend played me Spirit of Eden. It struck me instantly as sacred music. When the singer sang, I immediately knew that it hurt.

For all that Talk Talk were a band, with valued members and collaborators, and for all their much-vaunted evolution from glistening synth-poppers to post-rock pioneers, their music contains one clear through line: Mark Hollis’s voice, and what that voice communicated.

Whether backed by a Yamaha DX7 or a woodwind ensemble, Hollis sang the English gospel. Gloriously non-macho, his voice contained no trace of bombast or affectation. Instead, there is a plainness that is both honest and heartbreaking. It’s a voice you can believe, a voice that catches and breaks when it strives too hard, rising sharply before falling away at the edges of each line. It is a voice that sometimes seems, in a very English way, to surprise itself with the intensity of its passions – as on Renee, or the surging chorus of Living in Another World. At its lower register – on Westward Bound, or Chameleon Day – it is the murmur of a confessional. It’s a voice with an ingrained ache, which speaks of restrained passion and inner struggle, ordinary earthly torment and longed-for transcendence. It carries, always, the promise of compassion.

Talk Talk: Living in Another World (Live at Montreaux 1986) – video

Hollis’s voice seems to be forever reaching for a place beyond literal meaning. The band’s name, and the title and lyrics of its first hit, were after all a repudiation of the efficacy of language. It might well be Hollis’s great theme. Listen to him burbling at the end of April 5th, happily lost in a wordless reverie. On one of their biggest hits, Living in Another World, “Speech gets harder / There’s no sense in writing.” “Should have said so much, makes it harder,” he sings on Watershed. Communication as complication and confusion; knowledge as distraction. Back in the mid-80s, there were tales of Hollis taping together the fingers of a keyboard player to force him to play with greater simplicity.

Although he sang his often opaque words with unsettling intensity, definitive interpretation frequently lies just out of reach. There are recurring refrains, often concerning personal and universal transformation. Though Hollis professed that he was not a strong devotee of William Blake, you can hear that visionary mysticism rise up in songs such as New Grass and Inheritance. Nature appears as both balm and tormentor, rainbow and flood. There are intimations of biblical apocalypse, evocations of a prelapsarian Eden, throwbacks to established folk tropes, opiate songs, laments for youth and war. As he progressed, Hollis seemed increasingly to be eyeing up some great prize, heralding the imminent arrival of a new world. “Someday, Christendom will come,” he sings on New Grass. The final song on his last album is called A New Jerusalem. Perhaps he found it. You hope so.

Mark Hollis performing in Dortmund, in 1984.
Mark Hollis performing in Dortmund, in 1984. Photograph: DPA Picture Alliance/Alamy

Often you intuited these things, rather than decoded them. His voice was a powerful conduit to other realms. The lyrics for the last three Talk Talk albums are written on the inner sleeve, reproduced in a facsimile of Hollis’s own handwriting, but they sit uncomfortably on the page: terse, disjointed thoughts and phrases. It’s awkward poetry. It is not until you hear the way he sings “take my freedom, for giving me a sacred love” on Wealth – a devastating slow-dissolve into spiritual surrender – that the overwhelming catharsis floods through.

It made sense that by the time of his final work, his 1998 solo album, Hollis’s voice had become simply one of several acoustic instruments, his singing a quiver in the grain, a tonal blip, a north London blues incantation. The words had become almost wholly subservient to the mood, and often impossible to discern – which seemed at least half the point. His creative journey involved a gradual sloughing off of established notions of clarity, meaning, sound. His last album has almost nothing to do with any strand of popular music; it seems to exist in its own world.

When I spoke a few years ago to an executive at EMI, a man who worked with Hollis on compiling the 2013 Talk Talk compilation Natural Order, he recalled that Hollis put almost as much thought into the gaps between the tracks as the songs themselves. “For Mark,” he said, “as much as anything, it was about how it flowed.” You sensed that Hollis had reached a place where the only meaningful statement that remained was stillness. Silence was his final song. For 20 years he sang it beautifully. I’m so sad that it has ended.


Graeme Thomson

The GuardianTramp

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