My reviews of albums by Talk Talk.
1982: The Party’s Over (???)
I should really listen to their early albums given how I feel about their transformation.
1984: It’s My Life (???)
I’ve heard the title track (both studio and live versions) but never heard the album. Read my reviews of music from 1984.
1986: The Colour of Spring (8/10)
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 did in their somewhat brief existence 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 transitional album between their early music and the giant steps they would take on subsequent records. Transitional 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.
1988: Spirit of Eden (10/10)
Ever since I became a fan of the horribly named genre ‘post rock’ in the early ’00s, I always wondered where it came from. It has long seemed to me to have emerged from nowhere. What music from the ’80s could have possibly told us we would be listening to “rock” bands trying their hardest to make non-rock music or rock and non-rock music? It just seemed to me that something like Hex just came out of nowhere.
Now I know better. I only wish I had known sooner. I sort of wish I had someone to expose me to this when I was in my teens, instead of discovering it in my 30s.
That’s not to say that this is actually post-rock. Any attempt by us to dub it ‘post rock’ is erroneous: it’s too close to traditional rock music for one thing but, moreover, the genre wasn’t even named until the early ’90s. But the signs are all here: influences from multiple non-rock genres (cool jazz is the most obvious) and a definite attempt to break away from what was considered rock music at the time. And in addition to its clear path-breaking quality, the songs are also pretty damn great and the arrangements are near-perfect.
In short, all this is to say that this is one of the great rock albums of the 1980s. I wish I had known that sooner.
My #1 album of 1988. Read my reviews of albums released in 1988.
1991: Laughing Stock (10/10)
Though Hex is generally considered the official beginning of post rock, you could make a very strong argument that post rock begins with this record. (An argument that, in 2019, I’d agree with.) Already very much hinting at it on the previous record, Spirit of Eden, the music here is often even less recognizable as rock music, with entire songs seemingly barely existing as actual pieces, in a way that had little precedent in popular music prior to this band. The jazz influence is perhaps even more pronounced this time out, but though some or even all of these songs were initially recorded as if they were free jazz, the results don’t really fit our idea of jazz either. Instead, the “songs” seem to exist in some new space, that made little sense in 1991. It’s why someone eventually had to come up with a new name for the music on this record.
Aside from all that, I really like it. It’s my kind of thing – there are few records this effectively moody while, at the same time, charting a new course. And the one song that doesn’t fit in, that actually feels like a rock song, is a strong one, perhaps their most compelling thing I’ve heard from them outside of “It’s My Life.”
Just an absolutely essential record and one of the landmark albums of the 1990s.
Tied for my #1 album of 1991. Read my reviews of music from 1991.
Bonus: 1998: Mark Hollis (8/10)
Given how world-changing the final Talk Talk albums were, I guess we could be forgiven for hoping that Holli’s solo debut (and only record to this point) would somehow also be world-changing. I think there’s a natural desire for us to believe that artistic innovators will always be innovative, and always to the degree that they were when they were younger.
But that’s not really true. Sure, there are exceptions who continue to push the boundaries well into their middle and old ages, but they are few and far between. Most artists, like most people, settle into something after a while. It’s natural that someone continue to make music in their middle age that sounds similar to the radical music they made in their (relative) youth, rather than keep finding new things, even if this natural tendency bumps against our desires to see constant innovation and “progress” in art and the artist.
This is all a way of me saying that I shouldn’t have been initially disappointed with this album from Hollis, even though it sounds very much like the latter Talk Talk records, with more fully formed songs. I don’t know why I was expecting something totally different. And I don’t know why I thought it might be some crazy post rock thing; just because Talk Talk invented post rock (or rather, created the world in which post rock was possible) does not mean that Hollis has kept up with a genre he basically had nothing to do with (given that it came after those records).
Ahem, the music:
Hollis’ songs are sparse and usually slow, as you would expect from listening to Talk Talk. But I would say that I feel like the focus is more on the song itself – as there are actual songs – than the mood around the song or the freewheeling approach that sometimes characterized his late band. Though this record is reminiscent in sound to late Talk Talk, it also sounds more planned, more deliberate, more considered, more mapped out.
And so, instead of something innovative, we are left with something that is still relatively unique – who else made music like this in 1998? – but that is quite pleasing rewarding if you’re willing to give it the time. (No surprise there, this takes a while to grow on you.)
Hollis remains one of the unique voices of his era.