10.18.2011

Review: Mark Hollis' Selftitled Solo Debut ca.1998

After a long absence of silence, Mark Hollis, the singer and main songwriter of the 1980s English band Talk Talk, returned to the scene quietly with his solo debut in 1998 entitled, Mark Hollis. Mark Hollis, still confident in his style of music, continued with the enigmatic tones of the last Talk Talk album in 1991, Laughing Stock. Considered as the pioneers of post-rock, Talk Talk had the synthpop sound that was prominent in the 1980s with their first three albums. However, their newly found success at the time gave them the opportunity and financial support to explore and experiment with music in a different way. Beginning with their 1988 album, Spirit Of Eden, Talk Talk delve into a new realm of music, using a variety of acoustic instruments instead of synthesized ones and having several renowned musicians contribute to their work, including Robbie McIntosh from The Pretenders and Nigel Kennedy, who is one of the greatest and prolific violinists from the twentieth and twenty first centuries. Talk Talk’s last two albums, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock went hand in hand in developing a completely different direction for the band, which brought out their introspective and tranquil personalities. Both albums are also hinted with religious themes and references, though Mark Hollis described the lyrics as having more of a “humanitarian” theme. All three of these albums, including Mark Hollis’s solo effort, remind me of twentieth century classical music and the jazz fusion of the 1950s and 1960s. An album such as Laughing Stock has elements of what Miles Davis introduced in the 1960s as jazz fusion with the releases of In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The most palpable difference between Talk Talk’s last two albums and Mark Hollis’s solo album is that although all three incorporate a string of uncanny patterns, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock have more dissonance and overtone characteristics that can be traced back to Bitches Brew, whereas Mark Hollis incorporates more aspects of silence and structure.

Mark Hollis takes us to his world with this intimate and peaceful album. The album is reminiscent of the tranquil and folk style of Nick Drake. The atmosphere of this album takes you to a desolate place where technology and everyday suffering cannot touch you. The first track, “The Colour Of Spring”, takes you in the middle of a forest where the color of leaves and trees captivate you and almost make you feel alive with the essence of Spring. It’s a simple yet layered track that can get you hooked with its melodic piano and Hollis’s blissful voice. You can close your eyes and see the trees sway back and forth as the artist is telling you a story of grace. The very beginning of the track opens with only silence, engaging you in its subtleties. It forces you to really listen, instead of taking a more casual approach. This track is indicative of what twentieth century American composer, John Cage, attempted to accomplish with his piece, 4’33” (Four minutes and thirty-three seconds). 4’33” integrates only silence, when one is expectedly waiting for an instrument to play. The purpose of the piece is to have the listener engage in the atmosphere and textures of all sounds outside of the piece itself. Mark Hollis tries to accomplish the same tactic as to have the listener free his or her mind of any expectations and simply blend with all the sounds that surround them and take them to a place where they feel pure happiness. Another highlight to this album is the third track “Inside Looking Out”. This mesmerizing piece takes the listener to a quiet room, laying on the bed and watching the rain fall. The beginning piano chords are reminiscent to that of Arvo Part’s, a twentieth century Estonian minimalist composer, Tabula Rasa, where Part uses his Tintinnabuli to construct his pieces. Hollis, as did Arvo Part, emphasizes on each note, rather than the general outlook of the piece. The guitar that comes after the piano in “Inside Looking Out”, starts soft and grows to give the whole track a warm and mystical ambiance. “The Gift” is the most upbeat and rhythmic track that carries a groove-like disposition. This track gives the perfect division and climax to the album. One of the most tranquil pieces is “Westward Bound”. Mark Hollis’s dynamic and fluctuating vocals go blend seamlessly behind Dominic Miller’s soft classic guitar. “The Daily Planet” is the most elusive, yet textured track. The ambiguous use of woodwinds in the beginning leads the listener to become curious and engaged to what will happen next. Gradually, the percussion and bass creep in to lead the woodwinds. The use of dissonance is most evident in this track until Mark Hollis begins his vocals. At this point, the piece seems to act as an epic. Interestingly, the aggressive yet apt use of the harmonica adds as a tasteful blend to the piece. The album closes off with “A New Jerusalem”. This piece continues from the last, bringing a soft mood to close the album. The album ends the same way it began. The mellow and enamoring piece ends with a minute and a half of silence. Mark Hollis is able to capture the listener from start to finish. But he uses a silence, or a pause, to begin his album and to close it. This gives a chance for the listener to digest what he or she just heard in one peaceful breath. I can imagine Hollis laying his head on natures’ bed and describing the beauty he feels through his vocals and instrumentation. This album is perfect for a rainy day, or for a time when you’re sitting by a tree, surrounded by nature and waiting to go into a deep and inspiring thought.

This dreamlike album, unfortunately, did not have the success it deserved along with his efforts on Talk Talk’s last two albums. Mark Hollis went unappreciated and unknown to many. One can say that Spirit Of Eden, Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis went together in forming a new type of music that inspired bands like Sigur Ros, Radiohead, The Doves and Elbow. Its critical appraisal established Mark Hollis’s writing an essential contribution to music thereafter. Mark Hollis was Hollis’s first and last solo album as well as his last music endeavor before he retired. He left a strong mark, making listeners hope that he returns with more of this riveting music.

– Amirata Mahallati