Talk Talk: Spirit Of Eden Review
The timbre, amplitude, frequency, and duration of every note on Spirit of Eden tell a great, sad story of pop music, a war of art and commerce that birthed a new genre in its wake. Its breadth and scope are intimidatingly large: Silence is as important as tone, stasis is as important as movement. Inky chord progressions resolve into mystery, and lyrics leave only afterimages. The emptiness of its first two minutes allows you to adjust to the dim light of an album recorded in almost complete darkness. Then it just glows.
Never once do these six songs reveal the thought or labor that went into them, never once is there too much or too little. One moment (a muted trumpet, for instance) is always placed exactly where it should be alongside another (feedback from a blues harmonica), thousands of hours of tape painstakingly laced together as part of the vision and spiritual largesse of its composers, singer-songwriter Mark Hollis and co-writer/producer Tim Friese-Greene. It is a deep blue book of sound, humid with melancholy. Rare is rock music this simple made with such toil and unbearable emotion that there’s no better way to classify Spirit of Eden than by the elemental virtue of its sound, the very first thing of all music.
If only Talk Talk’s record label felt the same way. What if the massive EMI corporation had known that when Talk Talk delivered the masters to Spirit of Eden in the spring of 1988, the record would be a once and future marvel of pop music, the nexus into which jazz and minimalism poured and out of which a new post-rock flowed. Legend holds that when the A&R man at EMI heard it, it brought him to tears—not just because of its tidal beauty, but because he knew it wasn’t going to sell. A hugely successful UK band turned their sound inside out and delivered this whisper of a record, some slow, faint echo of their former synth-pop heartbeat. Talk Talk’s six-year career as a commercially viable band was, at that very moment, dead in the water.
Which was odd, because Hollis and Friese-Greene were convinced Spirit of Eden was going to sell four million copies. When they finished the psychotic, 11-month recording process, they were sure this interior, fully realized album would go platinum just like their third album, 1986’s The Colour of Spring—a fragile, autumnal collection of synth-pop shaded with knotty impressionism. Led by its two charting singles, “Living in Another World” and “Life’s What You Make It,” Colour propelled Talk Talk’s rise, selling over two million copies. They were experimenting with more ambient textures than their first two records (1982’s The Party’s Over and 1984’s It’s My Life), which were heavy with synthetic drums and guitars and found the band struggling to break out of the New Romantic box their label had put them into.
Fame, doing press, being the least bit genial: All the trappings of the music industry never suited Hollis during those airbrushed synth-pop years. He was a university dropout and a former punk, gaunt in look and voice, and obsessed with the granular, metaphysical side of art. In interviews, he would point to Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ orchestral jazz masterpiece Sketches of Spain, or the zen experiments of John Cage, or Vittorio De Sica’s avant-garde film The Bicycle Thieves as touchpoints for his inspiration. He is given to speaking like a Buddhist in a cockney accent, sentences that seem born of some kind of guru algorithm (“I’ve always been of the belief that to play one note well is better than to play two notes badly.”) At once truculent and soft-spoken, Hollis once got into a fight with the guy from Spandau Ballet because Hollis referred to everyone in the room, including himself, as scum.
It was the grueling world tour behind Colour that sealed it for Hollis. After a show in Spain, on September 13, 1986, Hollis, then only 31 years old, said he was done playing live forever. He couldn’t get the intricacies of the songs from The Colour of Spring to sound right on stage, not to mention six shows a week and all the cliches of tour life that led to a blur of detachment. Besides, he (and everyone else in the band) had just become fathers. The bell of a quiet adulthood was sounding. He decamped to the country in Suffolk and surrounded himself with the idylls of his family and a large stable of domestic animals, “18 at the peak.”
It was with this energy—part exhaustion, part bucolic splendor, part restless creativity—that Talk Talk re-entered the studio in May 1987 to begin work on what would become Spirit of Eden. All the hit singles from the band’s early days were paying off, literally, as EMI gave Talk Talk carte blanche to make the pop magic happen again for the fourth time. The band turned Wessex Studios, a former church in London, into a cocoon of darkness save for a few desk lamps in the control room, a sound-triggered strobe light around Lee Harris’ drum set, and a 1960s oil-wheel projector that cast globules of color onto the ceiling where the band worked. The hours were 11 a.m. to midnight, five days a week, smoke from incense and hand-rolled cigarettes fogging the space. Soon the sense of time seemed to slip away from everyone.
For three months, the group recorded in their psychedelic burrow. Hollis, Friese-Greene, Harris, and bassist Paul Webb built the chilly framework for Spirit of Eden, layering deep pockets of rhythm that could grow from a breath to a howl at a moment’s notice. “Desire” seems oceanic and blissful, the kind of unhurried languor the album has offered for 17 minutes—until a damn cowbell comes raging in, and Hollis rips into a bluesy chorus as if to undermine the entire mood established until that point: “That ain’t me, babe.”
Once the band had the basic shape of the album, they invited a revolving door of musicians to audition their sound and ideas for a spot on Spirit of Eden. They ran tape and let a harmonica player or violinist improvise for up to three-and-a-half hours, only to use maybe one or two seconds of it. Without a set budget or time constraint, texturing these songs was purely about discovery and experimentation, splicing and editing little snippets of sound and lofting them into place within the song. It went on like this for months: One person coming in for an oboe part, another for a bit of trumpet. Hugh Davies—assistant to the avant-garde pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen—even brought in his homemade theremin-like instrument the shozygs. “I know the album feels like seven guys playing live in a room,” said engineer Phill Brown, “but every note is ‘placed’ where it is. The album is an illusion.”
Hollis and Friese-Greene once brought in a 25-person choir to sing over “I Believe in You,” a brittle song touched with icy, crackling electric guitars that Hollis wrote in part about his older brother, the former punk rocker Ed Hollis, and his struggles with addiction. “I’ve seen heroin for myself,” Hollis sings, hugging the words, sounding like the vampiric inverse of Nina Simone. The anemic and honeyed quality of Hollis’ voice defines the sound of Talk Talk and Spirit of Eden, suspended in a fearful tenor octave like he’d drown if he sang any lower. On “I Believe In You,” when he lets the word “spirit” fall thinly out of his mouth, he defines the resonant frequency of a song that could never contain a 25-person choir. By all accounts, the chorus sounded incredible, moving the tea lady who worked at the studio to tears. The next morning, Hollis listened to the playback and told the engineer to erase the chorus completely. It was later replaced by the Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral, six cherubic boy sopranos.
To map this album, to find the provenance of each sound, would be an insane feat. You’d think Spirit of Eden had a score, a massive tome of reference that a conductor could glance at before signaling to the organist to come wafting in. But this vast mosaic of sound would just be window dressing if it weren’t for the dynamics Talk Talk include here, the rudiments of what would be used so effectively in the future by bands like Spiritualized or Radiohead or Explosions in the Sky. “Eden” shrinks and grows in macro and micro ways, using the felt march of a floor tom to build up the song and carve out an enormous space inside of which Hollis sings words that are biblically charged: “Rage on omnipotent.” His voice is frail, but the words could be carved into the side of a mountain.
Even as well-composed as these songs are, they have a feel to them, a swing, like a jazz combo locked into each other’s impulses. It is what makes Spirit of Eden a groundbreaking hybrid of style. How could something so meticulous feel so free, so cathartic, how could all this labor create this effortless space for the mind and soul to wander? It is the music of commercial liberation, the seeing of creative ideas to their unadulterated conclusion. The thrill of this music is the same thrill of listening to some of the great works of jazz, classical, and pop: the soul of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, the obtuse landscapes of Morton Feldman, the production and patience of Brian Eno. Today, this coming together of spirit and sound still feels like a radical and mysterious feat of popular music.
This was the feeling Hollis and Friese-Greene left the studio with, a wonderful sensation of doing something new, reaching to where, finally, their music wanted to get to for the better part of the decade. Of course it would sell four million copies. In the playback room, the label tried to figure out what to do with this band who would not go back to the studio to record a proper single and would definitely not tour their new album. As Friese-Greene once recalled, “I remember sitting in a pub down the road from Mark’s and [discussing how] we thought we’d broken the mold and could turn the tide of history by going back to a world where the single wasn’t king. How sadly mistaken we were.”
With no real marketing plan in place, Spirit of Eden faltered on release. Fans of their former sound were spurned by an album whose only constant rhythm was in the thick spine of Webb’s ambient-dub electric basslines. It was hardly singable, surely not danceable, and unlike anything that was happening on the charts at that time. With a lukewarm critical reception and a barely authorized three-minute re-cut of “I Believe In You” used as a single, the album hardly dented the charts. It ended up selling about 500,000 copies in total, a shrug for a then-major label, platinum-selling band.
Acrimony between the band and EMI festered into a court battle that ended with Talk Talk parting ways with the label and securing a contract with Polydor for what would end up being their final album, 1991’s Laughing Stock. That album took the post-rock aesthetic of Spirit of Eden in a more acoustic and wide-open setting—and ended up just as brilliant and luminously adorned. It was another hard-fought year in the studio, trudging to the completion of another commercially unsuccessful masterpiece. At their wit's end with each other and the music industry, Talk Talk soon disbanded.
“I like sound. And I also like silence. And, in some ways, I like silence more than I like sound.” It’s another Hollis zinger, but never was there a sentiment so apt for the man. Like a mute slowly placed into the bell of a trumpet, Talk Talk’s final albums gradually pulled focus away from the sound of pop music near the end of the century. Over here, in this pasture, was an untilled field of possibility to use with just some guitars and drums and bass. Spirit of Eden was the great inhale of religious feeling, one rock and pop music had been expelling for years and years. The thrill and stasis of a held breath carry the album from beginning to end. “Take my freedom,” Hollis sings on the closing hymn, as the band uses its last bit of thrust before drifting away.