A Weekly Song: Episode 6 - TALK TALK
A Weekly Song Episode 6 - TALK TALK
I once dismissed Talk Talk as a bunch of New Romantic has-beens. I was maybe fourteen or fifteen at the time, with the kind of youthful hubris and lack of experience that can’t yet fully comprehend how hard or extraordinary it is to create a lasting work of art. You can’t have art without commerce, of course – that’s a given – but seeing as most art reflects society and the era and environment it’s created in, and a lot of it is sublimated to the needs of industry and commercial pressures, it’s even more impressive when someone creates something timeless and genuinely unique.
In the early eighties, there were a plethora of arty post-punk synth pop bands and in the music press, Talk Talk were generally lumped in with those. I absorbed those received opinions completely, hence my initial disinterest in the band. To be fair, their early efforts – hits like the eponymous Talk Talk, Such a Shame and The Party’s Over did fall into the bracket of earnest young men in long grey coats making meaningful statements, something that was probably (uncomfortably) a little too close to home. However, I had a friend who insisted that Talk Talk were more than yer average chart popsters, and over time he was proved right.
Lesson one: listen, and always make up your own mind.
Lesson two: things change. Keep listening.
A few years later, around the time of their third album in 1986, it became clear that Talk Talk were up to something entirely different than their peers and contemporaries, as the singles that heralded The Colour of Spring were shot through with a life-affirming experimentalism and an epic melancholic taint. The first of these was Life’s What You Make It, which seemed as divorced from the teen angst of their earlier It’s My Life as it was possible to be.
At the time, I shared a flat in south London with a particularly morose and judgemental individual who tended to look for ways of projecting his own joylessness upon others, and I recall him asking me to stop playing Life’s What You Make It because it annoyed him. This caused me to play it even more. I’d like to say it was a further act of defiance that made me buy the album the track promoted, but it was the strange, repetitive piano line and Mark Hollis’ yearning vocals. Something about it hooked me.
The Colour of Spring was, and remains, surprising. It’s as much quiet spaces as it is ambitious, acoustic tapestries and superb musicianship. It features unexpected choirs, string sections, an orchestra of woodwinds (I think they’re recorders) at the end of the final track that sounds a bit like it’s played by kids. It’s beautiful.
That album was the first in a trilogy of exquisite, experimental masterpieces. Talk Talk had rapidly evolved from rearguard to exploratory vanguard and these days, are credited with creating post-rock. The Colour of Spring, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock might be three of the most influential albums in modern popular music, high points that signalled the idea of the rock or pop album as an emotional soundscape, a map for moods and textures in a way that maybe only Jazz and Ambient music had previously explored. Bowie and Eno had staked out similar territories before of course, but had knuckled down to the serious business of producing more actual songs before creating whole albums that work as movements or which are as shifting and immersive as these three are.
To me, this trio of albums sound like music that Talk Talk – Hollis, Paul Webb, Lee Harris and Tim Friese-Green, plus all their invited collaborators – had to make, regardless of the strictures of the pop background they’d hailed from. It caused a bit of record company friction (you can read elsewhere about how willfully uncommercial Hollis’ instincts were, and how he chose to follow his own artistic course) but they held true.
It’s difficult to actually separate any of these albums into tracks or songs because I very rarely, if ever, listen to them that way. One track flows into another, one album into the next. For all the time that exists between their release dates, for all the methods used to make each of them, after the fact they seem like an amazingly coherent tryptych. The intent behind each is to form something from improvisation, to take jamming as the basic fabric and stretch it over the canvas of an entire album – editing was as much part of the compositional process as playing. Talk Talk created something actual from pieces of the accidental; they formed something definite and finished from the impressionistic, which is maybe why it feels like you’re listening to a series of paintings. (Perhaps that’s why the band always used James Marsh to design all their album covers.)
This album precipitated in me an understanding of how fully an artist (or group of musicians, in this case) can follow his or her muse. I already knew that from many of the artists, painters and cartoonists that I liked, but something about hearing Talk Talk evolve over this and the previous album made it really hit home. You can choose that creative freedom, if you like, but you’ve got to be pretty fearless.
The reason I’ve talked so much about The Colour of Spring is because there’s a track on it called I Don’t Believe In You. As if answer, on the album that followed, Spirit of Eden, there’s a track called I Believe In You. They’re not twins, not really even bedfellows, but noting the differences in each is an illustration of that creative evolution.
If I had to pick one – and it’s difficult – I Believe In You is my favourite Talk Talk track. It doesn’t belong to the eighties; it doesn’t matter when it was released or when you first happen across it or hear it again. It’s always the same, but different. I don’t know what the meaning of the song is, or what Hollis intended with the lyrics (he mentions heroin and his voice is always tinged with a sense of pathos anyway).
Hollis’ fragile vocals are suspended over a soft beat, abstract tones and delicate, slowly cohering instrumentation that gives way to transcendent choral voices complementing the singer’s own. It sounds as if it could’ve been recorded yesterday. He’s almost in the room with you.
I used to lie on my back in a tiny bedsit listening to this with my eyes closed and imagine myself somewhere else entirely. It transported me, and still does if I do the same thing here, in a studio at the top of a house that looks out onto the skyscrapers of Manhattan. That doesn’t matter – close your eyes and listen and you’re anywhere you want to be.
Certain songs are companions to you as you travel through life, and this is certainly one. I Believe In You still moves me.