Mark Hollis has died. Apparently he battled a short illness and did not recover. He was 64. Hollis had more or less vanished from the public eye in the late 90s, retiring from music after his phenomenal solo album came out in 1998. With his band Talk Talk, Hollis (along with drummer Lee Harris and bassist Paul Webb, who goes under the name Rustin Man as a solo artist, he released a new one a couple of weeks ago), Hollis delivered a series of Top 10 pop hits in the early part of the decades. Talk Talk is perhaps most famous for ‘It’s My Life,’ a song later butchered by No Doubt.
But towards the end of the 1980s, Hollis took Talk Talk in a different direction. This really began with their 1986 album, The Colour of Spring, which was also their best-selling, most successful album of their career. But by 1988’s Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk had become a more experimental, deeper band. Spirit of Eden confounded critics and the public, though it is generally regarded as a classic now. Webb left after Spirit of Eden, leaving just Harris and Hollis to carry on.
And carry on they did, delivering one of the greatest albums of all-time in 1991, with Laughing Stock. Hollis is generally regarded as the inventor of post-rock, a music form that became immensely popular in the early aughts, most notably through bands like Sigur Rós and Mogwai.
Laughing Stock, like Spirit of Eden, is a product of the studio, but even more so. With both albums, Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene and engineer Phil Brown, recorded hours and hours of music and then edited and spliced together the tracks to produce the songs. This is painstaking work (as an aside, this is the same process legendary hip hop group De La Soul did with their most recent album, 2016’s And the Anonymous Nobody…; they recorded countless hours of session musicians and then cut and spliced to create the songs). To put it bluntly, Hollis was a control freak, this is the only way Laughing Stock could be made.
Hollis, Friese-Greene, Brown and Harris made their studio, Wessex Studios in London, a sanctified space. They worked in darkness, blocking up the windows, setting up projections onto the walls and ceilings and using a strobe light as their sole real source of light. Hollis once said that he makes music to be listened to alone, with your eyes closed, your own movies playing through your mind. This is, I might add, the best way to listen to Laughing Stock.
The album took around a year to record in 1990-91. Hollis and Harris were joined in the studio by about 50 session musicians, though only 18 made the final cut. Harris played the drums, which are majestic on this album, and added percussion. Hollis, meanwhile, played guitar, piano, the organ, and provided vocals. Hollis invited musicians in who shared his aesthetic and he gave them free reign. Essentially, Hollis, Friese-Greene, Harris, and Brown gave them a basic chord structure and let them have at it. And Hollis tended to only be satisfied when the his guest musicians had fully expressed their character and given him their purest, most truthful performance.
The result? Pure brilliance. Only six tracks long, Laughing Stock is gorgeous and disturbing. The album is generally structured around Harris’ clockwork drums, which here sound more jazz than rock. The album sounds like a freestyle experiment, which it essentially was. Listening to this album, I have always felt like I am in the studio with them, it is an intimate, aching, and gorgeous album. Hollis’ voice tends to be muted, wounded, and disengaged. And the music ranges from free jazz to noise rock.
The album starts with 15 seconds of amplifier hiss, which you can really only hear if you’ve got headphones on, or if there is silence around you and the music is loud, before a bass line stutters in and a tentative guitar appears whilst a horn checks in. Then Hollis’ sad voice introduces itself on this track, ‘Myrrhman,’ singing about needing help to stand up, before noting that ‘something happening here’ before it fades away.
Compared to that, the next track, ‘Ascension Day’ sounds like optimism to me. It starts with Harris’ precision drumming, then a bassline as we enter jazz territory before Hollis’ guitar takes over, cutting and slashing over the bass and drums as his voice wearily describes Judgement Day, and I guess, killing the optimism. But then the song builds up to a furious and crashing crescendo of guitars, bass, drums, before suddenly the tape just cuts out.
‘After the Flood’ then emerges out of the silence, growing softly and slowly around a mellotron, which spins around and around before the bass and drums join. Harris’ tour de force behind the kit continues here, as after Judgement Day comes what happens after the flood. Hollis is biblical here, singing of soulless beings and Cain as an organ is laid down on top of the mellotron. It is also the longest track on the album, as it slowly fades away.
‘Taphead’ is a masterful song, beginning with a muted guitar and Hollis’ muted, unsure vocals. Slowly the song builds, and then breaks down in a long organ and keyboard mixture before Harris reappears with a loping, trip-hop feel of a beat as Hollis’ broken voice skims over the top. This is a masterful seven minutes of glorious restraint.
Penultimate track, ‘New Grass,’ appears as the most optimistic on the album, centred around Harris’ drums once more and Hollis’ jazzy guitar, as Hollis sings what could be a love song to God. Christian imagery dominates this album, as should be obvious from the titles, of course. This is the most straight-forward, easily accessible song on the album.
And then, finally, ‘Runeii,’ begins with a tentative guitar filling the silence as it gains steam and leads us towards a song that never quite takes off, joined by percussion, bass, and organs along the way. It is a gorgeous song.
And with that, Talk Talk faded away. Harris and Hollis packed it in after it came out, I don’t think they even toured it. Hollis retreated from the public eye, only to re-appear briefly with his eponymous solo album before disappearing again. He told journalists in the late 90s he was retiring for family reasons and he did. He and his wife lived in Wimbledon, London. She was a teacher, and they had two children.
So he’s been gone from the public eye for over twenty years, but with his death, Mark Hollis’ legacy as the inventor of post-rock music, and the creator of one of the most brilliantly gorgeous albums ever should be recognized and celebrated.