A Weekly Song: Episode 9 - Ólafur Arnalds and Talk Talk (Redux)
A Weekly Song: Episode 9 - Ólafur Arnalds and Talk Talk (Redux)
Tomorrow and Yesterday’s Song
Before I talk about this week’s song, I want to say a little more about Mark Hollis, frontman and chief provocateur of Talk Talk whose I Believe In You I wrote about just a couple of weeks ago. The news of his death was the most unwelcome of coincidences, especially since I’d recently been listening heavily to Spirit of Eden to write that post.
Aside from being once a band leader, an inspirational iconoclast and brilliantly maverick individual, he clearly was a man of deep integrity with an unwavering commitment to his muse. This might’ve meant that he seemed obstinate and inflexible to some, but in my experience, artists who care so much about what they do are sometimes labelled “difficult” by non-creatives. He was also clearly a private and committed family man and I would imagine is greatly missed by his relatives. To them, I can only offer the condolences of a total stranger who feels fortunate to be a member of the worldwide audience that witnessed the evolution of Hollis’ music. I’m sure the man was very different from the artist, but it’s the overlap between the two where the interesting conflicts and creativity happen and that’s why albums like Spirit of Eden get made, luckily for the rest of us.
The finality of the news of the death of an artist of any kind always causes in me both a sense of reappraisal and gratitude, a desire to comprehend the body of work in its entirety; get a sense of the whole story. You can’t, not really, especially as the story is still unfolding, albeit in terms of its influence and the way in which new information often comes to light. Even so, I find that considering such things helps in modifying one’s own fine-tunings... your attitude evolves; your listening (or reading, or looking) is enhanced. That is, you find a new perspective from which to appreciate what they left behind.
My mother died last year after a short illness during which I was her live-in carer. During a period of grieving (which hasn’t really yet ended) I listened to Hollis’ later work with Talk Talk a lot, especially Spirit of Eden, and found solace in it. In all the many, many tributes to Hollis I’ve read online, that’s a common observation – how his music helped the listener in personal dark times. It’s healing music.
Hollis’ oblique, understated approach to writing lyrics sometimes makes his words seem like little more than colour for the expressive textures of instrumentation, but this phrase…
Ain’t it enough
...from I Believe In You has rung through my head over and over in the past three or so years, never moreso than after my own loss, which to contextualise it, was a small, personal thing happening against the backdrop of a western world in political and social upheaval. It felt like everything was going to shit, and being creative in the face of that is an act of both resistance and defiance at a time when I had little strength left for either. That song really helped me muster some.
The echo of I Believe In You occurred again of course, with the news of Hollis’ own death earlier this week, and so his work of art reverberates further through ones’ own life, its meaning, or the sense of one, ever more nuanced and somehow applicable to the everyday.
That’s great art – timeless, yet somehow always relevant.
Mark Hollis’ music was like the slow brightening in the aftermath of a storm – lulls and quiet spaces where you are reminded to keep your eyes open to the beauty around you.
Thanks, Mark. Godspeed and RIP.
I thought perhaps I should do a separate post for this, but I was trying to think of something appropriate to wax lyrical about in the light of Mark Hollis’ legacy and the way his work left the door open for many bands to begin to explore similar territory.
Inevitably, many (wonderful) post-rock bands came to mind – Bark Psychosis, Mogwai, Slint, Broken Social Scene, Sigur Rós, to name a very few. Radiohead went through a period of talking about Spirit of Eden and its influence on them. I may get to some of those rightly esteemed outfits later in this series, but there’s also a space where what Hollis did overlaps with something else, and for want of a better term, right now I’m going to call it healing music.
Which brings me, as a balm of sorts, to Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds.
The connections between Hollis’ music and Arnalds’ may be merely stylistic, about mood and atmosphere: I played a track of his recently to a mate who commented, “That sounds like something off a soundtrack. “ (Arnalds provided the score for Chris Chibnall’s Broadchurch among various other short films and performance pieces).
Or, you could argue that his music occupies a similar place to that of Mark Hollis’ work, in that his approach is experimental, conceptual, intricate, both instinctive and defined by very particular approaches that include both the traditional and the technological. Like Hollis, he looks for the accidents that come about via collaboration – that space again where overlap creates something new and unexpected. If you could draw a Venn diagram of how creativity between two artists of any kind works, the area where two distinct personalities interface is where all the crazy invention is going on.
Also like Hollis, there’s a wide perception that Arnalds’ music is highly emotional.
My mate thinks that Arnald’s signature is a kind of deliberate melancholy, but I find that to be a superficial reading – I think the general tenor of Arnald’s music arises from curiosity and a desire to reflect the natural world. There’s something delicate about his compositions, yes, but they aren’t fragile; they’re aware of and describe beauty, they make a feature of that collision between the deliberate and chance as described above*.
Sometimes his pieces are built around short piano or string refrains, chains of acoustic notes that gradually build into something larger. Often there’s a crescendo, or instrumentation that builds to cascades, but often Arnald uses quiet spaces and moments of stillness that remind me of Hollis’ approach. What is in between is as important as what is. Sometimes, as with the odd Talk Talk track, you hear the creaks of the musician’s chair as they play.
I first discovered Ólafur Arnalds in FOPP in London where I picked up a copy of Island Songs. I’ll admit, being a fan of Sigur Rós who hail from the same neck of the woods, it was the Icelandic connection that intrigued me and I bought it without listening first. It was one of those impulse buys that heralded a whole new branch of exploration and connections. I’ll say breathlessly, I love his stuff. Island Songs is a musical travelogue of Iceland where Ólafur goes to a different location and a different musical collaborator for each track.
For this week’s song, I nearly picked Particles from that, a beautiful ballad whose lyric is written by Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir from Of Monsters and Men. I also nearly picked the uplifting Slowly, Comes The Light from ...And They Have Escaped the Weight of Darkness (a title that seems appropriate in keeping with the subject matter of today’s essay) but in the end I went for something exquisitely gentle from the album Living Room Songs.
It’s called Tomorrow’s Song. The creak of the chair as Ólafur plays is part of why I love it.
If you like it even only a tiny bit, I would exhort you to investigate his music further. As always, listen and enjoy.
*It’s worth reading how Arnalds created his latest album, re: member, which is a collaboration between a human (Arnalds himself) and a responsive algorithm that simultaneously plays two other pianos and which took him two years to write. See link above for more – it’s fascinating.