Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Album Review: Mark Hollis

This was the only solo album released by Mark Hollis, once of Talk Talk. Released in 1998, it takes the musical direction forged by Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock to a more minimalist and sparse setting.

The album doesn’t represent a major departure from these, as the 8 songs contained within are all framed by Hollis’ fragile, quivering voice. After 20 seconds of silence, opening track The Colour of Spring starts off sounding reasonably conventional before retreating in on itself with a beautifully quiet Satie-esque piano part. It’s like REM’s Everybody Hurts turned inside out and stripped down to bare bones. Watershed is more fleshed out, with more instruments but never so much that the instruments overwhelm the music with each individual instrument line given a chance to breathe in this setting. The merest flaws, strings squeaking and background noise can be picked out in these songs.

Inside Looking Out is rather sombre, almost forbidding. You nearly hold your breath listening to songs like these, as if even breathing could disturb the mood. Hollis sings in a gossamer-like voice words which are not lyrics in the conventional sense but more impressionistic (“left no life no more”). The song is dominated by the sparsest of piano progressions, with a little guitar and keyboards here and there, and production so bare you can here occasional creaks here and there. It’s breathtaking.

The Gift is busier, along the lines of Watershed, and tinged with regret with some wonderful acoustic guitar peeking in and out of the track before ending with woodwind. A Life (1895-1915) opens with clarinet and is light years away from conventional rock music, with parts of it very silent indeed, until after 3 minutes a piano part enters to carry the song for 2 minutes, along with some spectral backing vocals.

Westward Bound has a ratcheting guitar figure along the lines of Runeii from Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, while The Daily Planet reaches back further (after a cor anglaise opening) to Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden album. Guitar, some lovely piano and harmonica blend together to create a muted epic.

Final track, A New Jerusalem is the sound of music being put away. Funereal in tempo, it’s blissfully bleak. The album finishes as it starts, with silence. It takes an age to get into this album, but it does reward. This really is a modern form of that age old genre, the blues. However it’s hard to see where Hollis can go from here, and I understand he has retired from the music business.