Post-rock is not a genre that affords celebrity. The creators of such music tend to shun the spotlight — not that much comes their way to begin with — speaking instead through their records. But if there ever was a such a thing as a post-rock icon, it was Mark Hollis, the elusive frontman of Talk Talk. Under Hollis, Talk Talk began the 1980s as a synth-pop group and ended it as something radically different; their twin masterpieces, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, wove jazzy, ambient soundscapes from hours of improvised recordings. Then the band quietly folded, and for a while, Hollis did, too.
When reports emerged on Monday that Hollis had passed away, it came as a shock, but then again, Hollis appearing in the news for any reason would have been unexpected. Icons are defined by their presence, but Hollis was defined by his absence; his relative silence outside the studio only deepened the mystique of his work. In time, silence would also come to be a defining trait of his music. In a decade where bands were expected to grow bigger and louder and experiment with synthesizers, every new Talk Talk album sounded more hushed and more organic — and more anti-commercial — than its predecessors. Seven years after Talk Talk’s swan song, Hollis unexpectedly returned, whispering his lone solo album into existence.
Mark Hollis is not post-rock. Where Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock felt like they were creating new worlds out of sound, Mark Hollis looks to the past, drawing on folk and classical music as well as jazz. (Which is to say, this isn’t post-post-rock, either.) Piano and guitar form the bones of the record, and sometimes, as on opener “The Colour of Spring” (so named for Talk Talk’s third album) or “Westward Bound”, it’s the only instrumentation you’ll hear under Hollis’ singing. On tracks such as these, silence itself becomes as important to the songs as any proper instrument; what you don’t hear is as essential as what you do.
Other songs find ways to fill that silence. The pastoral “Watershed” is colored by brushed cymbals, a sighing pump organ, and a trumpet solo from Henry Lowther (whose tone sounds remarkably similar to that of Miles Davis) while the swaying folk jazz of “The Daily Planet”, the album’s jauntiest track, features a soft symphony of woodwinds: clarinets, bassoons, a harmonica. And then there’s “A Life (1895-1915)”, Mark Hollis’ centerpiece and the track that comes closest to recapturing Talk Talk’s dynamic grandeur. “A Life (1895-1915)” is structured like a three-section classical suite, bookending a circular piano-and-guitar pattern at the center with woodwinds, which play gently but fitfully as if uncertain where the song will take them. Occasionally, Hollis will utter solemn, impressionistic fragments of lyrics: “dream cites freedom,” “such suffering,” “and here I lay.”
I once read something about how difficult it is to sing softly. As with his music, Hollis’ singing became increasingly quiet over the course of his career, to the point where about half of the words on any given song are unintelligible. But even when he’s singing on the edge of audibility, the clarity of Hollis’ voice never wavers. When Hollis does raise his voice — “soar the bridges that I burnt before,” he sings on “The Colour of Spring”, “should I swear to fight once more” on haunting closer “A New Jerusalem” — it’s genuinely affecting.
But perhaps the most affecting thing about this collection of songs is their sense of intimacy. Prior to the album’s release, Hollis remarked that it “isn’t suited to play live,” but listening to Mark Hollis — more than any other record I can think of — feels like sitting in the studio as it’s coming together. (You can hear Hollis’ chair creak on some of the songs.) And while Hollis worked with nearly as many backing musicians on this album as he did on Talk Talk’s final two albums, there are times on Mark Hollis where it feels like its creator is alone, conjuring sounds. And then there are times where it feels like Hollis himself is not there, disappearing into the silence from whence he came.
Hollis returned to that silence for good after the release of Mark Hollis, emerging rarely to help support other musicians or contribute a one-off piece to a TV show. But even with those asides — and before his death — Mark Hollis carried an air of finality, as if it was Hollis’ intention that this would stand as his last word. While it has taken time for Mark Hollis to find the audience it deserves, there are now many who sing its praises, though none sing as quietly and as profoundly as the album itself. It’s still singing, if you’re listening.
Essential Tracks: “Watershed”, “A Life (1895-1915)”, and “The Colour of Spring”
Buy: Pick up copies of Mark Hollis’ visionary work on vinyl here.