A Prog Faith: Mark Hollis, Part I

its getting late james marsh
Artwork by James Marsh.  The moth, either disintegrating or becoming whole.

For all intents and purposes, Mark Hollis disappeared twenty years ago.

 

No, not entirely.

Since releasing his last full album, MARK HOLLIS, in 1998, he has appeared, from time to time, on the work of other artists–most particularluy on the work of Phill Brown, Dave Allinson, Unkle, and Anja Garbarek.  All of these collaborations, however, took place before 2002.

Ten years later, in 2012, Hollis again emerged, writing a stunning piece of music for the Kelsey Grammar TV series, Boss.  That piece, “ARBSection 1,” lasts a full 54 seconds.  No one in the music world has seen or heard from him since.

Not too surprisingly, Mark Hollis’s absence has only heightened the interest in him.

For those of us who love Talk Talk, there’s something unlrentingly fascinating about the trajectory of the band.  As is well known in musical circles, Talk Talk had its origins in punk but quickly became an MTV showcase of glam rock and pop, producing one clever synthpop song (and video) after another–Talk Talk, Hate, Today, It’s My Life, Such a Shame, and Dum Dum Girl–between 1982 and 1984.  They became a standard of the first half of the 1980s–easily lumped in with Echo and the Bunnymen, The Cure, Thomas Dolby, New Order, and Duran Duran—as part of the second British invasion of American pop culture.

Yet, even from their beginning, the band was different from all of their pop companions, even if many in the music scene of the time dismissed (or missed) those differences.

First, there was the artwork for their albums–the incredible work of James Marsh, surreal and nightmarish, if strangely enticing and beautiful.  Marsh’s work, though unique, has far more in common with the work of Roger Dean (Yes) and Storm Torgerson (Pink Floyd) than with the artists who produced the cover of say, Duran Duran’s RIO.

THE-PARTYS-OVER
Enticing, but creepy.  Definitely not Duran Duran.  Art by James Marsh.

The first album, THE PARTY’S OVER, depicts a face made of three mouths and one nose.  The right (eye) mouth is shedding a tear.  Again, beautiful but creepy.  The second, album, It’s My Life, is a bit more conventional, but it still shows the world as a puzzle, its pieces floating unanchored across a surreal sea. The sun and a seagull offer a bit of hope, but not much.

 

Additionally, there were Hollis’s extraordinary and deeply emotional lyrics.  Take, for example, the lyrics of the title track of the first album.  Though musically a melancholy new Wave pop track, the lyrics border on the gut wrenching.

The party’s over
I never thought you’d stay
The love of laughter
My truth’s no longer sane
The party’s over
Much older than you’d say
THIS FRIEND OF NO-ONE
TIME, CREASES ON YOUR FACE

Or, again, the lyrics of track five, “Hate”:

My foes beware
I’m tired of losing grace
The child’s not there
The priest is losing faith
Defile my care
And stumble to the flames

Here, Hollis stumbles perilously close to the abyss, pondering a meaningless existence with only suicide offering an out.

Or, again, from track six of the album, “Have You Heard the News?”

Did you see my photograph
It was on page ten
I swore to everyone
I’m not to blame
I turned around and saw him hit the ground
A little earlier it was a game
I’m so disposable
You can throw me away

This is a man burdened with unbearable guilt.

And, it must be noticed, Hollis always employs religious imagery in his lyrics.  Some critics have claimed these as mere irony, but they seem too consistent and anguished to me to be mere irony.  In their truly poor and despicable history of progressive rock, BEYOND AND BEFORE, Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell, claim Hollis’s rage stems from his hatred of Reagan, Thatcher, and the “Christian God.”

I can’t speak to Hollis’s politics, but, from my point of view, religion and theology drive almost everyone of Hollis’s lyrics.  His lyrics might well be angry toward God, but they are angry in the way a confused friend is angry toward another friend.  That is, it’s the righteous anger of Jeremiah, not the anger of Judas.  Taking religion seriously also, I think, helps explain Hollis’s integrity and his disappearance from the world of commercial pop.  After all, pride goeth before the fall.

it's my life
The second album.  Art by James Marsh.

The religious themes become explicit in the few tracks Hollis wrote between the second and third Talk Talk albums.  Take, for example, the single “It’s Getting Late in the Evening,” a b-side that came out January 1986, prior to the appearance of The Colour of Spring.

 

Everybody’s laughing

Brilliant sky
Set the sails, our hearts are open
Don’t cry
I believe release is in your smile

The tide shall turn to shelter us from storm
The seas of charity shall overflow
And bathe us all

Walk on by
Make believe our exile’s chosen
Untied
I can see our freedom’s in your mind

The tide shall turn to shelter us from storm
The seas of charity shall overflow
And bathe us all

If these lyrics are cynical irony, I am one very, very confused human being.  For and toward the Christian under siege, everyone does laugh—at the fools we are.  But, as Hollis so beautifully cries, charity will bathe us all.

Four months later, the band released “Pictures of Bernadette,” another b-side. Granted, these lyrics are far more obscure and difficult to interpret.  On the surface, they seem to be about a breakup with a girl named Bernadette, leaving Hollis only with pictures.

However, coming at the same time as such religious songs the one above as well as “Happiness is Easy,” “April 5th,” and “Give It Up,” it’s worth considering that Hollis is talking about St. Bernadette, the French woman in the late 1850s who had visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Lourdes. Bernadette received visions and pictures of Mary, but most in the town thought her insane.

How can I forget
I’m getting visions of you inside my head

Pictures of Bernadette
Bernadette
Pictures of Bernadette

Change
I’m no closer
How can I reproach her

How can I pretend
I’m living like a king in a land that’s heaven sent

Granted, these might well just be a “break up” set of lyrics, but I suspect they’re more deep than they appear on the surface.

Then, Talk Talk changed the music world with their third album release, THE COLOUR OF SPRING, arguable the finest album produced in the rock era. Moving away dramatically from the synth-pop instrumentation of the first two albums, THE COLOUR OF SPRING soars with complicated instrumentation, heart-felt lyrics, and extraordinary musicianship.  Even Steve Winwood performs on it.

Opening with a drum riff borrowed directly from Spooky Tooth, and a full, lush, and organic organ and bass, “Happiness is Easy” begins with plaintive vocals.

Try to teach my children
To recognize excuse before it acts
From love and conviction to pray
Take good care of what the priests say
‘After death it’s so much fun’
Little sheep don’t let your feet stray
Happiness is easy
Little ships of Galilee
Standing on the sea
Jesus tried to love us all

Again, the lyrics are not without concern.  There are those who have used religion as an excuse for war, for power, and for abuse.  Yet, Hollis repeatedly calls us back—especially through brilliant use of a children’s chorus—to the true love of Christ.

The fourth track—probably the first song ever to be labeled post-rock—April 5, slowly and patiently reveals the nature of grace, ever cultivating the good despite the evil we choose.

Come gentle spring

Come at winter’s end

Gone is the pallor from a promise that’s nature’s gift.

Only two songs later, “Give It Up,” Hollis laments the horrors of an earth used for evil

From the place that I stand
To the land that is openly free
Watching rivers run black
By the trees that are vacant to greed

The album goes even bleaker with the seventh track, “Chameleon Day,” only to become (and provide) one of the brightest endings of any album of the rock era, with the eight-plus minute “Time it’s Time.”  Though one might find himself in despair, never knowing how long it will take to come out of it, one WILL come out of it.

Nobody knows how long
Rustling leaves unrhyme, I’m sorry
Lullaby breeze unsung
Babel of dreams unwinds in memory

As bad as bad becomes

It’s not a part of you

And love is only sleeping
Wrapped in neglect

In the end, it’s all grace.  Grace calling upon grace, and grace answering grace.  “Now that it’s over, rest your head.”

End Part I.  Click here to jump to Part II.

Colour of Spring
Talk Talk’s third album, arguably the greatest album of the rock era.

 

 

4 thoughts on “A Prog Faith: Mark Hollis, Part I

  1. Just a tiny “side-note” here………………..the song “Dum Dum Girl”??? Well………there IS an Indie-rock band that formed back in 2008,named “The Dum Dum Girls”!!! Not sure if it’s a reference to this groups song or not!?!? But I like alot of their stuff!!! 🙂 ~Peace~

    Liked by 2 people

    1. kruekutt

      Might also be a take off on Iggy Pop’s The Dum Dum Boys,” written about the Stooges. Mark Hollis’ musical influences are exceptionally broad, drawing on everything from the then-current scene to Miles Davis’ modal period (especially Kind of Blue) and John Coltrane’s ballad work.

      Liked by 2 people

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