Mark Hollis, MARK HOLLIS (Polydor, 1998). Tracks: The Colour of Spring; Watershed, Inside Looking Out, The Gift; A Life; Westward Bound; The Daily Planet; and A New Jerusalem.
If Mark Hollis wanted to show that he was no longer a member of Talk Talk, nothing could be quite so revealing as the album design of his first and only solo album, MARK HOLLIS. Gone was anything resembling James Marsh’s lush psychedelic landscapes, aching with sacramental if surreal beauty. Gone, too, were the hand written lyrics. Instead, if you find it attractive, the minimalist cover looks like something Apple might design as a part of its product line. If, however, you find it not so attractive, it looks like the label of some kind of generic grocery store product from the late 1970s: “Beer.” The white background supports a bizarre black and white photo. I’ve stared at this photo many times, and I still don’t have a clue what it is. Frankly, it looks a bit like roadkill on display in a museum. The label on the cd booklet merely states “Mark Hollis” in a plain font. On the actual jewel case, there are two stickers. One states “Made in the U.K.” The other states “Formerly of Talk Talk. 537 688-2.” I presume the latter stick refers to Hollis, not to the U.K.
As with LAUGHING STOCK, MARK HOLLIS came out on Polydor. When Hollis had originally signed to the label, the agreement was for four albums total. Considering that MARK HOLLIS came out in 1998, twenty years ago exactly, the chance of Polydor getting two more out of him seems more and more remote. As to what Polydor thinks of Hollis, it’s impossible to state. Clearly, the label knew what it was getting after SPIRIT OF EDEN. If they didn’t, they were fools, and I’m guessing they’re not fools.
Still, there’s no original recording, tape, or copy of LAUGHING STOCK. The company, bizarrely, erased them all. LAUGHING STOCK was remastered for its vinyl release in 2016, but the remastering had to be done from copies of copies, not from the originals.
Before Hollis actually released MARK HOLLIS, the album was to be a Talk Talk album, called MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON. Obviously, at some point, Hollis changed his mind and went with a self-titled album.
Yet, despite every outward appearance, the album very much sounds as though it was made by the same man who had so gloriously made COLOUR OF SPRING, SPIRIT OF EDEN, and LAUGHING STOCK. Tim Friese-Greene is gone, Paul Webb is gone (and had been, not appearing on LAUGHING STOCK), and Lee Harris is gone. Of the old guard, only Hollis and engineer Phill Brown remain. Of the eight tracks, though, Hollis wrote only track three, “Inside Looking Out.” The other songs were co-written with Hollis receiving first credit. Phil Ramacon (a professional session player), Warne Livesey (The The, Midnight Oil), and Dominic Miller (Sting, World Party) each co-wrote with Hollis.
Apple officially labels MARK HOLLIS as “Alternative and Punk.” How it made such a decision or came to such a conclusion is simply beyond me. While, as mentioned above, there’s no doubt this is Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, it’s about as non-punk as one could possibly imagine. Indeed, I’m not even totally sure there are rock elements in MARK HOLLIS. Lots of late nineteenth-century impressionism, some late 1950s jazz, and some, believe it or not, 1940s Disney fantasia, but there’s little rock and certainly no punk. At best, the album feels as though Mark Hollis and a few his closest friends came over for post-Sunday Mass brunch, performing in the living room around the family grand piano. Hollis’s vocals and lyrics are so intense, it’s as though he’s letting us all in on the true secrets of life and happiness.
The first song, “The Colour of Spring”–a reference to his years in Talk Talk–is a confession and apology. “Set up to sell my soul/I’ve lived a life for wealth to bring.” Yet, he sighs, “The colour of spring” called to him, allowing him to “immerse in that one moment,” finding himself fully and completely “in love.” With that awareness, he can “soar the bridges that I burnt,” as he encountered the “one song” that holds all together.
Moving from plaintive piano and anguished vocals to impressionist and Coltrane/Davis jazz, “Watershed,” the second track, finds Hollis realizing that every bad thing he’s done and everything bad done to him has a purpose, a moment each leading to a crucifixion. Indeed, the more you love, the more you will suffer. This, it seems, is an inexorable truth.
Track three, “Inside Looking Out,” takes us back to a simple piano with other instruments slowly introduced into the song. With only seven lines of lyrics over six and ½ minutes, Hollis offers a prayer. “Feel my skin Lord.”
“The Gift,” track four, is again a confession. God had offered Hollis so much talent—”purest, purest”—but he had taken it and used it for his own benefit, becoming nothing less than a “clown.” Of all of the tracks on the album, this one musically sounds closest to the last three Talk Talk albums. The song ends on a sour note, wondering if it’s too late for repentance. “Cold/Burnt Out/And fear you are gone/And now the shade/Sun eclipsed to shade.”
The most stunning song on the album, track 5, “A Life (1895-1915),” is probably more relevant today, on the hundredth anniversary of World War I, than it was when Hollis released it in 1998. Over eight minutes long, Hollis describes the short life of an English soldier—presumably of much promise—in only 14 words. “Uniform/Dream cites freedom/avow/relent/such suffering/few certain/and here I lay.” Gut wrenching. Absolutely gut wrenching. And, arguably, the most powerful anti-war song ever written. Musically, the song is built around a woodwind symphony in its first and third parts. As mentioned above, there are moments that sound like what I am calling—though I have no idea if there’s an actual term for it—Disney Fantasia. The woodwinds form a type of faerie dance that only Disney could’ve brought to life, visually at least, in the late 1930s. Roughly 3 minutes into the song, an angelic chorus begins to sing, part 2 of the song. Think, however, subdued and saddened angels, not over-the-top rambunctious ones. Again, much more like faerie than anything else. The album, though, does not credit any female singers, and I have no idea who they are. They’re as mysterious as their lyrics. At the end of their singing, the song returns to the woodwind symphony (part 3), before becoming a jazz tune at around 5 and ½ minutes into the track. Here, in part 4, the woodwinds combine with the bass and drums. With little more than a minute left, the track ends with only bass and woodwinds and Hollis whispering, “And here I lay.”
“Westward Bound” is one of the few optimistic songs on the album, seemingly about seeing the world with innocent eyes. Not all is great, however, as drought seems to have hit recently, but the protagonist keeps walking west, hoping stoically to find work as a thresher. Only a guitar is used for the music.
Another song based around the woodwind symphony, “The Daily Planet” is another stoic song in which the protagonist must learn to look past the sins and hells of this world. The jazz drumming slowly builds, especially in the second full minutes of the song, with guitar and bass coming in as well. Though the woodwinds are unique to this album, the song itself—especially given the drumming—sounds a bit like “Ascension Day” from LAUGHING STOCK, but much slower and, somewhat amazingly, more intense. Mark Feltham’s harmonica is used to great effect in the middle of the song, bringing the airiness of the woodwinds down to earth. Lies, pain, and deception abound, as Hollis explains in the lyrics, and all are tied to the curse of the Adam. In the end, though, the protagonist resolves to continue to live to the best of his ability, whatever the pains.
The album ends with a nearly seven-minute long tune, “A New Jerusalem.” Musically, the song revolves around piano, bass, and guitar, all played in a Davis/Coltrane kind of jazz. Following on the earlier themes of war and destruction, the blood of men running into rivers, and those into the oceans, Hollis takes a vow. “Heaven burn me/should I swear to fight once more.” These are, he concludes, not just “wise words,” but “wild words,” recognizing the radical claim in a world torn apart by violence. Presumably, to give us time to contemplate the album, the song actually ends at the 5:04 mark, with the final 1 minutes and 46 seconds nothing but silence.
What else to write about this album? It’s an absolute masterpiece of delicate but manly creativity. It’s not rock, it’s not prog, it’s not alternative, and it’s certainly not punk.
It is, simply put, Mark Hollis, sui generis.
For all intents and purposes, we have not seen Hollis in 20 years. Wherever he is, and whatever he is doing, I wish him nothing but the best. The man is a genius, and between 1986’s THE COLOUR OF SPRING through 1998’s MARK HOLLIS, he gave us the best of himself. And, those dozen years made us all better.
This is part IV of my series on Mark Hollis and Talk Talk.