He disappeared into the fog: Mark Hollis the ethereal outsider

Talk Talk’s singer was a master of melancholy and reinvention whose tender voice allowed us to vanish into ourselves

Mark Hollis, lead singer of Talk Talk, dies at age 64
Alexis Petridis: ‘The reluctant pop star who redefined rock’

It’s that time of year when the lengthening days start to fill with a new kind of light and undeniable signs of new life. The first gold of a daffodil; the fresh surprise of warmth on the neck; a bluer sky. And the first moment this feeling comes, usually in February or March, I play a song from an album which is a dear favourite of mine. “Here she comes”, it begins. “Silent in her sound / Here she comes / Fresh upon the ground.”

This week in 1986, Talk Talk’s The Colour of Spring entered the album charts at No 8, sitting between Jonathan King’s Entertainment USA and Go West’s Bangs and Crashes like a rare butterfly. A record by an art-rock band whose talents had previously promised stadium hits, it bore one of their perennials Life’s What You Make It, but it also included April 5th – the song by which Talk Talk began to disappear.

It begins with soft, synthesised percussion, piano, slight guitar strings, a breath of woodwind. Then comes the gentle arrival of a season, and the soft, slow approach of promise as the album’s title arrives in its lyric. There is “laughter in her kiss”. For “birth she lives”. “Let me breathe,” Hollis sings, as we hear a new band being born.

Mark Hollis performing in 1985.
Mark Hollis performing in 1985. Photograph: Eric Bouvet/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Talk Talk’s fourth and fifth albums, 1988’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock, took this vanishing act further, throwing away any memory of their arrival in pop in 1982 with the synth-pop clamour of Today. (Talk Talk had emerged around the same time as similar masters of epic melancholy, Tears for Fears, but had done the opposite to them: peeled away the layers, rather than added to them.) Songs such as Desire, Taphead and After the Flood were impossibly beautiful and sublimely bleak – not like songs at all, in many senses. Instead, they were long, meditative, immersive experiences – extended journeys into the possibilities of ambient sound, influenced not by what surrounded their makers, but by the spaces between; of the improvised nature of jazz and modern classical composition, as well as strange, oblique poetry.

This was music that kept disappearing into the fog. Talk Talk conjured ideas and delicate images like pointillist painters: “Desire / Whispered, spoken / In time / Rivers, oceans”.

You had to stand back and take it in as a whole, or be brave and enter it, letting its misty weather hold your bones. It created the perfect atmospheric spaces for the 90s foundations of post-rock and trip-hop. It also allowed us to vanish into ourselves.

In this mix, Mark Hollis’ voice crystallised its intent, and it did so in a peculiarly understated way. The high notes of his voice are both moving and strangely fragile: the voice of the edgy outsider in the classroom, who still manages, somehow, to touch you with his tenderness. His is “one of the great un-rock voices,” said Rob Young of Wire magazine in 1998, conducting Hollis’ last UK interview, to accompany his only solo, stunning eponymous album.

Its oblique chords and acoustic treatments support a voice that seems to shift delicately on the air, and it begins with a song called The Colour of Spring, a brief hint to his past, which has always moved me. “[His voice is] all whisper and no scream,” Young writes beautifully in that interview. “At times, the voice is little more than a thin parting of the air.” But Hollis’ is also a voice strangely blessed of its own quiet confidence. It invites you embrace his inner silence, as well as our own.

After that solo album, Hollis seemed to disappear too. Or rather, he simply left the industry whirlpool behind – like Kate Bush did between The Red Shoes and Aerial – to get on with real life. He became a father in 1986, and talked in his rare interviews about the importance of being a good parent. He was also well-known in the industry for being a stickler, never wanting to release anything that wasn’t absolutely right. He played piano beautifully on UNKLE’s Psyence Fiction album, for example, but wanted his name taken off the credits afterwards. The only thing that appeared after his solo album was suitably odd: a one-minute instrumental in 2012 for a Kelsey Grammer TV series. Called ARB Section 1, its keening clarinet and discordant synthesised voices suggest a recognisable soul musically approaching new avenues. He kept such riches, fittingly, to himself.

A few years ago, I attempted to find him. I drafted an idea for a documentary, to prompt him from his hiding place and somehow make him appear again. I listened to endless old interviews, glorying in his thick London accent. I found out through friends where he lived, in a thoroughly ordinary suburban place. I found out he had made other music that hadn’t been released (although rumours of a Massive Attack collaboration are, sadly, probably untrue). Later, I would also find out the story behind April 5th: it is a song about his wife, named after the date on which she was born – giving the song’s erotic momentum an extra charge.

But then as February to March came again, the days starting to lengthen and warm, I realised it didn’t really matter where Mark Hollis was, or who he was any more. This was a musician who didn’t want us to think about him. This was a musician who wanted to exist absolutely in the moment of music. And so, as the year keeps on brightening, I’ll try to remember the music still continuing, still breathing, after all else has gone. And that voice, soft and sure, sings on: “Youth takes its bow before the summer the seasons bring / Waiting for the colour of spring.”


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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