Avow / Relent
163 · 12 March 98
Mark Hollis: Mark Hollis
"Here", your hostess says, over the muted thud of the Oasis CD playing in the next room, with a hint of exasperation in her voice, depositing some other ungainly soul in your static corner of a party otherwise characterized by an easy Brownian social motion. "Talk about music", she instructs, looking at a space in between the two of you, a directional compromise meant to express a combination of annoyance at both of your inabilities to participate amiably in the various conversations taking place without her intervention, and (as she adds "You two", with a motherly sigh) a ruefully affectionate awareness that a few uncooperative guests sulking in the corners of a party are necessary for its stability, and to give the hostess something more satisfying to do than keep cutting-boards stocked with Wheat Thins. As she rejoins her caretaker's orbit, she doesn't literally look over her shoulder at you, but you can sense, as she trails one hand across the shoulders of her partner in passing, the other collecting empty glasses (or bottles, depending on the social class to which the party aspires) off the bookshelves, her high heels clicking across the strips of hardwood between the rugs, that she will be back to see if you have made good use of her incisive introduction.
The two of you eye each other warily, wondering just how incisive the introduction could be. On the one hand, a well-crafted party sulk is a work of performance art, and it would be disrespectful and unsatisfying to simply abandon it. On the other hand, a party sulk is, like most art (and most things one does at parties), an attention-getting tactic, and continuing one after you've succeeded, however indirectly, in getting someone's attention is merely rude, and likely to get you uninvited to the next such party. And while parties where you sit in the corner waiting for the Oasis CD in the next room to end might not seem, inherently, like privileges to fight for, sometimes they are all that stand between you and complete social dysfunction. So you turn to the depositee, declaring an intermission in the sulk by settling, slightly, into your slouch as you pivot. "So, what kind of music do you like?", one of you says.
This is, of course, a trick question, and a belligerent one, however much genuine interest it appears to have been infused with. No true music lover will answer it. No true music lover, frankly, will understand it. You would not, if introduced to a food lover, ask "What kind of food do you like?" ("Eggs! Mostly...") The question is, at heart, an insult, and an attempt to preempt the conversation by establishing that the person of whom it is asked is not a truly versatile music lover but some narrow-minded facsimile, like a ska rat, or someone who only listens to lesbian harpists, or only Grateful Dead bootlegs, or who believes, insupportably, that DJs are the only true musicians. The only correct response to this opening gambit is a gently dismissive "Oh, all sorts", punctuated with a hand-wave that says, in effect, "Okay, play Nineteen Questions, if you'd prefer."
The next move, then, if nobody was disqualified during the first round, is "Well, what are your favorites?" This, too, is something of a trick. A true music lover is prepared to answer it, but reluctant, because a short list of favorites is a hopeless oversimplification of a rich body of musical tastes. "The Beatles", you could say, but this doesn't distinguish someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music history behind their abiding love for one of the form's seminal practitioners from somebody whose entire music collection consists of case-less cassettes of Rubber Soul, OU812 and an older brother's homemade Greatest Hits of Creedance (sic) Clearwater Revival. So you say something, because if you don't you don't get another turn, but it doesn't matter exactly what.
A few more of these volleys go by: "What do you like currently?", points deducted if the respondent cites the Oasis album playing in the next room, double deductions if they mis-identify it as Radiohead; "Do you go to concerts much?", points deducted if the case for is built on seeing REM in an arena three years ago, or Third Eye Blind at a free concert thrown by a local radio station whose nickname involves the words "Magic" or "Mix" in any form. The content of these rounds is immaterial; they are designed only to reveal, obliquely, just enough about the character of the participants for one person or the other to decide whether there is enough potential to merit shifting the questioning into a more serious line. You are hoping for a glimmer of life, a dangerously over-analyzed answer to a casual question, a burst of breathless enthusiasm for something the speaker couldn't possibly expect you to have heard of. "My favorite band is National Health", or "All the people I'd want to see seem to play at the one club I was banned from for life after trying to sell bootleg t-shirts during a Fugazi concert", or "Did you notice that our hostess owns the Jethro Tull box set?" And so, if things are going well after all, by the time your hostess circles back around again the two of you have a shared smirk on your faces, and a bad "Aqualung" reference prepared as thanks for bringing you together. If things have really gone well, though, you will forget the joke, and ignore your hostess entirely, because you will be deeply intent on a question, finally, that a true music lover can take seriously, the first of which is usually "So, what ten albums would you take with you to a Desert Island?" (Shortened, if you're feeling cocky, to just "DIDs?")
The DID list is a music-lover's cross between a fingerprint and a secret handshake, serving the simultaneous purposes of identifying the speaker and assessing the listener. All true music fans must be prepared to itemize their list (I think it's actually in the by-laws). Actually, to be precise, all true music fans should be partially prepared to itemize this list. A DID is no fun if it doesn't involve a little last-minute revisionism, so instead of memorizing ten albums, we develop algorithms that can be used to generate DID lists that display some invariant characteristics and some that express our current emotional state. In my case, my DID list is separated into three segments. The first five slots are reserved for one album from each of my five favorite artists, and while some impulse substitutions are possible, I usually stick to a proven representative quintet: Steeltown by Big Country, Hounds of Love by Kate Bush, Lolita Nation by Game Theory, Misplaced Childhood by Marillion, and Tori Amos' Little Earthquakes. The last two spots on the list, at the other end, are wild cards, and can be used for any two of the dozen or so albums that swarm in a probability cloud around places nine through twenty in my mind. (At this very moment nine and ten would be Repeater, by Fugazi, and Wrecking Ball, by Emmylou Harris.) The three spots in between the standards and the audibles on my DID list have been reserved, for about the last five years, for three individual albums. Their authors would almost certainly make my top twenty, on overall merit, as well, but they each have one record that I would trade for nothing else in the world. One is Scottish neo-traditionalists Runrig's atmospheric 1993 departure from their Celtic folk-rock roots, Amazing Things, which to me is the most breathtaking depiction of the sense of wonder I've ever heard given musical form, and the single most life-affirming work of art I know of, in any medium. The second, fellow Scots Del Amitri's 1989 second album Waking Hours, is as humble as Amazing Things is dramatic, and is my idea of the perfect melancholy relationship-song pop record.
The third of these albums, and though it would be misleading to say it's my favorite, it is my vote for the most remarkable piece of recorded music in my experience, is Spirit of Eden, by Talk Talk. If it did not exist, It's My Life, Talk Talk's 1984 second album, would probably get the occasional call-up in one of the audible slots as one of my three favorite synth-pop records (with Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth and Propaganda's A Secret Wish, not coincidentally contemporaneous), but Spirit of Eden, the band's 1988 fourth album, is another order of artistic accomplishment entirely, in my mind. It is the quietest record I would ever imagine identifying as rock music. The spaces between notes are as carefully articulated as the notes themselves; the sounds of fingers coming off strings are as important as the sounds of them going on; it is less an album of songs than a forty-one minute aural-Cubist magnification and refraction of the pooled essences of two dozen musicians sharing a room for a single reverent moment. No work of art has ever made me more sure that there is an animus in human lives that transcends physiology, because I could swear, when I'm listening to Spirit of Eden, that I can hear it whispering. Unfortunately, Spirit of Eden is also such a far remove from Talk Talk's shimmery, Duran Duran co-touring early days that it alienated fans and critics alike with an efficiency that would rival Whitney Houston releasing Metal Machine Music. EMI, stung, abandoned them and set about a particularly vindictive cannibalization of their back catalog. The fifth (and so far last) Talk Talk album, Laughing Stock, from 1991, exists entirely in Spirit of Eden's universe, in some ways a radical reconception of its aesthetic (earth to Spirit of Eden's ocean, a deliberate dichotomy that extends even to the two albums' cover art), but more like it than either album is like anything else. And then, as if the processes of life had been captured in these two albums so fully that there was nothing left to explicate, the band fell silent. The rhythm section, Lee Harris and Paul Webb, went off and became a techno/ambient/world-beat studio project called .O.Rang, and producer and sometimes member Tim Friese-Greene kept himself busy producing other things.
Mark Hollis' debut solo album, seven years later, involves none of them, but has plenty of connections to Talk Talk all the same. Guitarist Robbie McIntosh, trumpeter Henry Lowther and engineer Phill Brown appeared on Talk Talk records as far back as It's My Life, and harmonica player Mark Feltham and percussionist Martin Ditcham joined for The Colour of Spring. The rest of the players are new, but the instrumental composition of the ensemble (drums, bass, three guitars, piano, harmonica, trumpet, two clarinets, cor anglais, flute, and two bassoons), is very much in the mold of Spirit of Eden's (drums, percussion, various basses, two guitars, piano, organ, harmonica, trumpet, clarinet, cor anglais, bassoon, oboe, dobro, violin, choir) and Laughing Stock's (drums, percussion, two acoustic basses, guitar, piano, organ, harmonica, trumpet, clarinet, six violas, two cellos). The biggest difference, to me, between this album and the two Talk Talk records it superficially resembles is that where the pieces of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock seemed less like conscious human creations than like knots of universal truth simply given the space to unravel, the pieces here are discernibly compositions. In fact, I've come to think of Hollis, I realize, as a composer, by which I mean something different than a songwriter. He wouldn't be the first pop writer to switch to serious art music, but I think that's not actually what he does. These pieces are serious, and not without classical elements, but the idioms, however fractured, are still those of rock music. What Hollis has managed, it seems to me, and although he's not the only one to try this, either, he has less company, is to change attitudes without changing fields. This is what you can get if you take rock music, albeit an abstruse and spare strain of it, and take it as seriously as an academic composer takes classical music. The pensive, odd-scale woodwinds hint at early twentieth century antecedents, and the guitars indulge in no stadium heroics, but Ditcham's percussion lends a pervasive rock (or at least jazz) insistence, Lawrence Pendrous' piano is closer to Tori Amos than Bach or Mussorgsky, and Chris Laurence's booming bass lends the music a odd, shifting gait.
As on Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, though, these aren't the details that define the music's atmosphere. Noises that would be incidental on another record are critical here. At least half of the percussion sounds more like unconscious taps and scrapes than planned cymbals and drums. The sounds of hands and picks crossing frets are as much components of the guitar parts as the vibrations of the strings, and at times the creaks of someone leaning toward a microphone and then away again are clearly audible. Harmonica and trumpet, normally used in rock only for flourishes, are essential ingredients in Hollis' music, their Doppler inflections matching those of his singing. The rooms themselves are palpable presences, as for once a recording doesn't try to deny its own air flow. And through it all runs Hollis' mesmerizing, ethereal voice, something like a cross between the pale astringency of Bryan Ferry and the ghostly, fadeaway dynamics of Emmylou Harris. Entire songs careen back and forth between inaudibility and unintelligibility. The lyrics, as spare and evocative as the music, are important, but separable; the sound of the singing is its own story of how passions swell and disperse.
And although this is a more contained album than its two predecessors, in ways it is also more varied. "The Colour of Spring", the opening track (which did not appear on the album of the same name, though the co-credit to It's My Life pianist Phil Ramacon does suggest a previous life), just piano and Hollis' blanched voice and muted humming, would be an elegiac anthem in any other hands. "Watershed" is the clicking cycles of an arcane mechanical theology, like Babbage's clockwork computer calculating the mass of the Holy Ghost. The slow introduction of "Inside Looking Out" is measured and halting, like a 4/4 ragtime player-piano roll with fourteen of every fifteen chords excised, but the song evolves into nearly a folk dirge, were it not for the eerie woodwind squeaks and the almost undetectable percussion hiss, like a single cricket being cleaned in a dishwasher across the street. The insidious, rattling groove of "The Gift" contrasts arrestingly with the feedback-like wounded-animal harmonica and trumpet howls, and twittery guitar figures that flirt with flamenco. The long "A Life (1895-1915)" opens with disharmonic wind figures that remind me of Henry Cowell essaying free-form jazz, eventually adding a tentative bass line that sounds like it could have been one track from a forty-eight track Yaz song, never intended to be heard by itself, and a creepy backing-vocal chorus that I think is either Latin, or playing backwards, or possibly both. "Westward Bound" is the least heroic traveling song I've ever heard, like theme music for striking out for the frontier via continental drift. "The Daily Planet" is a steady 3/4 jam, Feltham's harmonica seizures and somebody's acoustic-guitar stabs skittering over an imperturbable swing-time cymbal cadence. And "A New Jerusalem", the finale, with its solemn piano, sighing winds, distracted picked guitar and arrhythmic drum filigrees, is like an ancient labyrinth that's been disassembled for shipment to some Nevada billionaire's arid estate, its air of mystery reduced to an intricate encoding scheme on the ends of the burlap-wrapped sections.
The texture of Hollis' music is so involving that I tend to forget at first, but his albums are always also about something. On Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock you had to be really curious, since it was next to impossible to decipher most of the lyrics from his singing, and scarcely any easier from the handwritten lyric sheet. Spirit of Eden, though, despite the pastoral title and cover, was a jungle of venom and dissatisfaction, out of which shards of sudden confidence jutted, incongruously, like the wings of shot-down cargo planes, and it's hard for me to be sure, ten years later, whether the album's autopsy of the price of deliverance is a wrenching acceptance of it or a final dying gasp of defiance. Laughing Stock is an even closer (and more explicit) scrutiny of Christian precepts, gone far beyond the point where acceptance or rejection is the issue, like the ninth year of a ten-year argument with God, in which rancor and comprehension are beginning to converge. The solo album emerges from this long debate with what seems to me like a series of apologies. "Should have said so much; / Makes it harder, / The more you love", regrets "Watershed", as if making lives harder improves them (which it probably does). "Inside Looking Out" addresses God like the course of the narrator's life is out of either of their control. "The Gift" remembers youth's purity, and the contrast with the sad resignation of age is enough to implicate astronomy. "A Life (1895-1915)", in just fourteen words, seems like a biography of twenty years of the whole world, a period of global optimism that can't seem anything but insane in retrospect. "Westward Bound" swings from naive optimism to crushing gloom like a mast snapped off at the base, "The Daily Planet" is a succinct critique of claims of cultural progress, and "A New Jerusalem" despairs of ever escaping the effects of war, even once we've reached home again, but the narrative, struggling to make some hope of this tangle (or perhaps just me, struggling to make some sense of it), twists out of hatred's grasp in time for the last two stanzas: "Heaven burn me / Should I swear to fight once more. // D'you see? / Wise words, / Wild words." Sometimes, I think the song implies, surrender requires the most courage of all. This is a consummately Christian suggestion, essentially a rewrite of "Turn the other cheek", and the part of me that fixated on Nietzsche's The Antichrist when I was fifteen is still repelled by the idea, but I've learned to appreciate a few things in my second fifteen years that didn't seem compelling to me in my first fifteen, and one of them is seeing someone succeed in reconstructing the core tenets of their faith for themselves, from original principles. To feel the shudder when the force of revelation slams into someone you don't have to inhabit them, you only have to reach out your hand. In fact, empathy is the enemy of clear observation, so arguably the only way to study the phenomenon, other than experiencing it yourself (which isn't quite "studying"), is to watch someone else arrive at a truth you don't share.
The touch that most prevents me from shaking off this album, though, is not its conclusion but its beginning. "The Colour of Spring", the opening track, were it the last one, would have changed the record completely. It is the one song on the album unalloyed by disenchantment or defeat, a short, simple psalm of rebirth: "Forget our fate, / The pedlar sings. / Set up to sell my soul, / I've lived a life for wealth to bring. // And yet I'll gaze [at] / The colour of spring, / Immerse in that one moment, / Left in love with everything, // Soar the bridges / That I burnt before, / One song among us all." If the album had ended this way, it would have been a record of glorious hope, all the suffering and uncertainty resolved into universal harmony. And so I'm fiercely proud of it for having the sense not to. Ending with hope is the easiest lie in all of storytelling; anybody can live happily ever after in ellipses. The real trick is making hope last, of using the rare happy moments to get through the altogether more common hard parts. By putting the most hopeful song first, this album is effectively issuing a challenge, it seems to me, to see if you can keep hope in mind through hardship, on the album as in life. Only your ferocious concentration as you listen can make this an uplifting record -- Beethoven's Ninth, by contrast, is as manipulative as Love Story. In an era of dwindling attention spans and conditioned audience impassivity, this is a crazy kind of album to make. The twenty seconds of silence at the beginning, and nearly two minutes at the end, are, for once, not idle gimmicks; who will have the patience for music that insists on interrupting the current of entertainment? The betrayal Mark Hollis has perpetrated, over these six albums, is nothing as superficial as giving up the synth-drum sheen of "Talk Talk", it's that he's made it harder, with each record, to sustain the illusion that his albums are fun.
Of course, explaining this to your hostess, after you've scared (or bored) away the erstwhile music fan she went out of her way to find for you, will probably get you taken off the list for her next party. But then, if so, what were you learning by being there? And aren't there better things to do with the time? We listen to music, me and whoever else will carry candles perversely into this gloom, as much for what it wards off as what it brings. And if two minutes of silence can bring you an evening of peace, or ward off an hour of "Eggs!", you are on the verge of alchemy.