Perfection is... Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, Perfectionist Songwriter! 

by Joan Hiller

It's gotta be hard to shoot for the sublime. Mark Hollis has been doing so since 1981, ever since Island Music helped him book demo sessions with his industry-connected brother. From that moment on, Hollis' recordings have documented his inspirational, sometimes-obsessive passion for recorded sound.

I remember the first time I heard Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden--a friend of mine, flabbergasted and appalled that I'd never spent time with Hollis' records, gave me his copy--to keep. He said I'd need it. I'd been having a shitty year--bad decisions permeated by worse consequences, overworking myself, overextending myself, lending too much energy to the tending of other people's circumstances that were beyond my control--and I took it. Went home. Roommates were asleep. I grabbed my headphones (the big, shitty, old headphones that used to belong to my dad; the same headphones that filtered Steely Dan's Can't Buy a Thrill and Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits II into my prepubescent ears years ago), kept the lights off, and sprawled out spread eagle on the hardwood floor. The opening movement of "The Rainbow" trickled in, and I cried.

Noting, of course, that definitions of perfection are abstractly objective, few disagree that Spirit of Eden is anything less than exactly that. Hollis' climb towards Eden and beyond, of course, wasn't a short or easy one. After Talk Talk signed to EMI and released their debut, The Party's Over, in 1982, it was apparent to both critics and contemporaries that the label was using the group to ride the New Romantics wave straight to Hitsville. EMI was rakin' it in with the similarly double-monikered Duran Duran; and Talk Talk's first two bubbly yet sexy, broody synth-pop singles ("Mirror Man" and "Talk Talk") flopped like the rip-offs they were, while the punchier "Today" charted well. Hollis, happy with the success but unhappy with the way in which he was being artistically corralled, brashly replaced most synth sounds in his outfit with organics. That's when he met producer Tim Friese-Greene and started handpicking session players to meticulously realize his lofty intents.

Colour of Spring (1986) was a remarkable turning point for Hollis, and served as a model for the next record, Eden, and a near total abandonment of his earlier style. Filled with experimental textures and sprinkles of small sounds that sound so big throughout, the record's punchy, gorgeous opener, "Happiness is Easy," slowly folds through pinpoint-sharp classical guitar washes into a chorus sporting a children's choir, swelling synth strings, and unbelievable emotional release. Hollis' songwriting process now intentionally channeled improvisational and loosely formed compositional ideas into tight, organic structures. These compositions were brilliantly free, but still founded on pop. He and Friese-Green turned sketches into blueprints, then allowed session musicians to contribute ideas until they had enough material to pick from. (The December 1991 issue of Record Collector notes this same technique was popular with Can and Ornette Coleman.)

Eden was formed largely using that same painstaking process, but due to the final version's microscope-like attention to the minutiae that defines the most perfect, lonely, full moments on the album, its intensity level is far greater. It's really the little bits of Hollis' work that get me--the über-micing of an egg shaker, the hint at Hollis' inhalation before his warbly, delicate vocals tiptoe into a verse. He's continued with it through his unbelievably brain-blowing 1998 self-titled solo album, released on Polydor and available on Blueprint. It features a lot of Talk Talk alumns, but is distinctly Hollis' own--he sounds solitary, effervescent. A quarter of a decade later, Hollis still searches for that which he achieves time and time again--the creation of works that epitomize what he can do at the pinnacle of his creative power at any given time. And God bless him for that.

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