I have come at so many bands backwards, listening to their peak stuff before their early stuff, and it really distorts a band’s evolution. But few bands changed as much as Talk Talk in their somewhat brief existence did and so it’s extra ridiculous that I’ve come at their discography completely backwards and it makes evaluating their earlier music extra hard. Fortunately (?) I’m a fan.
Also fortunately, I know “It’s My Life,” so I have at least some idea of what they sounded like before they evolved. Given that, I feel like it’s safe to say that this is very much a transition album between their early music and the giant steps they would take on subsequent records. Transition records can be mixed bags but it helps that I like Hollis’ songs, his voice and his willingness to do basically the opposite of all of his contemporaries.
Even once he had fully embraced the strange aesthetic that would eventually be called post rock, Hollis’ sense of melody shone through. That’s only more true on these more conventional records. Sure, there’s nothing as remotely catchy as “It’s My Life”, but these are are still catchy enough to carry their relatively distinct arrangements.
But it’s the arrangements that are the real draw. Talk Talk were one of the only synthpop bands to completely abandon synthpop partway through their career, and they’ve already done it here: the organic instrumentation is all over this record, with acoustic guitars (!!!) and other traditional instruments almost entirely taking the place of synthesizers. Even when they do embrace technology, it’s often something older, like a mellotron. These instruments do things we don’t always expect in conventional pop rock.
Hollis’ distinct voice is in fine form (and mixed low). So much of the appeal of this music for me is my association between his voice and the music they would make later. And I understand that’s a ridiculous way of evaluating this record. But I can’t help that I appreciate both the distinct sound of his voice, and his willingness to not be the most prominent sound on their recordings. (“April 5th” is an exception to this, and there are probably others.)
I think you can quibble with the mix – it doesn’t sound great all these years later, though it definitely sounds distinct when compared to the synthpop groups and the New Romantics. If it hasn’t been remastered yet, that might also help the sound. But this is a minor quibble given that I like everything else about it.
I understand that I like this so much in part because of what it suggests they would do in the future, which I love. And I understand that nobody knew that in 1986 and so it’s ridiculous to use it to judge the record. But I can’t think of too many other contemporary artists making music like this. (Kate Bush maybe? And she was using way more contemporary musical technology.) And I think that distinctness, coupled with the strong songs, has to count for something.