Released 1998 on Polydor
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 12/05/2007ce
2. Watershed (5:45)
3. Inside looking out (6:21)
4. The gift (4:22)
5. A life (1895 - 1915) (8:10)
6. Westward bound (4:18)
7. The daily planet (7:19)
8. A new Jerusalem (6:49)
Composed and arranged by 1. Mark Hollis and Phil Ramacon 2, 4, 5, 7, 8. Mark Hollis and Warne Livesey 3. Mark Hollis 6. Mark Hollis and Dominic Miller.
Produced by Mark Hollis. Engineered by Phill Brown.
Mark Hollis - Guitar and Vocal
Martin Ditcham - Drums and percussion
Chris Laurence - Bass
Lawrence Pendrous - Piano and harmonium
Dominic Miller - Guitar
Robbie McIntosh - Guitar
Melinda Maxwell - Cor anglais
Andy Penayi - Flute
Iain Dixon - Clarinet
Tim Holmes - Clarinet
Mark Feltham - Harmonica
Henry Lowther - Trumpet
Maggie Pollock - Bassoon
Julie Andrews - Bassoon
The 1980s don't have a great reputation, which is sometimes understandable when more obvious examples of the music released in it are cited. Sadly due to the popularity of the list based/Top Ten TV programmes since 1999, a certain version of the Eighties seems even more prevalent. Do I have to mention names?
But there was another side to that decade, plenty of great records - some of which are probably mentioned in Unsung or have a devotional following elsewhere (e.g. the 33 1/3 books on Daydream Nation & Let It Be). Several artists at one time located in the pop realm and a fixture in the charts decided to pursue other directions - our host Julian Cope, Soft Cell (when they decided they were more a Suicide/TG band), David Sylvian & Mark Hollis. I guess this was a rejection of being pop and an expression of where their heads were really at? A positive side of the loathed decade is that it sent people like that towards avant garde climes. I'm guessing MOR music like Coldplay and Travis will similarly send some folk to the peripheries - heck, even Bruce Springsteen has apparently started covering 'Dream Baby Dream' by Suicide!!
Hollis had many a hit with the band Talk Talk, who were kind of embarrassing when they arrived - due to a past history of a dodgy punk single Hollis composed with his late brother Ed (who also co-wrote 'Talk Talk') and more to do with the fact they supported Duran Duran and were tagged New Romantic (probably a good year or so after the tag had been coined). Debut LP 'The Party's Over' (1982) had some decent songs on it, though was marred by synths of the era and the kind of period production that you associate with A Flock of Seagulls - the kind that make 'Independence Day' by The Comsat Angels feel like a guilty pleasure (though I don't really do guilty pleasures...). The next LP saw Hollis team up with co-writer/producer Tim Friese-Greene for 'It's My Life' (1984), which had more melancholic material, with Hollis' trademark moan surfacing on 'Renee' and 'Tomorrow Started.' This is the moan that kind of stretches words infinitely, as if they don't have a meaning, it featured heavily on the records that followed - I guess it's probably fair to suggest it was influenced by Robert Wyatt, especially a record like 'Rock Bottom.'
This month's edition of The Wire closes with an interesting piece from Joseph Stannard on certain records by Steve Winwood - the main focus being the song 'Spanish Dancer' in relation to a certain type of "oceanic rock" (a term apparently coined by Simon Reynolds, but probably also not far from Steve Sutherland - both in relation to bands like AR Kane, Cocteau Twins, Hugo Largo, My Bloody Valentine). Stannard's piece generally centres on 'Spanish Dancer' and its parent LP 'Arc of a Diver', as well as pointing to Winwood's Moog contributions to 'One World' by John Martyn, and then pointing back to the roots of Winwood's oceanic approach with late period Traffic (the folky jazz fusions of 'The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys' & 'Shoot Out the Fantasy Factory'). In all this, Stannard points to the recent Panda Bear and also to Talk Talk - Hollis & co definitely taking an influence from these precursors, going as far as to feature Winwood on Talk Talk's transitional third LP 'The Colour of Spring' (1986). That record was the last time Talk Talk had hits, bar the dodgy remix/reissue once they left EMI, a horrendous local radio station would probably play 'Life's What You Make It'; but the way of the future would be more avant garde, ambient pieces like 'April 5th' and 'Chameleon Day.'
From those songs would stem 1988's 'Spirit of Eden' (the last album to feature Hollis and his original bandmates Harris and Webb, who would later form O'rang and Rustin' Man) and 'Laughing Stock' (1991), records further and further out there that put the nail in Talk Talk - a good piece in Mojo last year focused on this record (as well as a great one in Uncut in 1999, when they had longer reviews - it was in their equivalent of an Unsung section, now ditched for something corporate like Uncut Classics!). That Mojo article suggested some addictions and issues, recovery with aid of flotation tank and anti-depressants, and was probably the point when the union between Hollis and Friese-Greene ended, though it's all a bit vague. Add to that various business and legal related elements - I'm guessing the usual record company guff, Talk Talk's previous record label releasing remix compilations (Hollis apparently sued succesfully), more band/business/family stuff there are rumours of, & a libel case against an entry in an encylopaedia of rock music - which suggested Hollis was a heroin addict in the entry on Talk Talk (this was in relation to 'I Believe in You' - a song probably written around Hollis' late brother Ed, though who knows, I'm sure it was possible there were other addicts too - Hollis won again). Talk Talk were contracted by Polydor/Verve to release a second record, the compilation 'Missing Pieces' appeared in 1999 (largely alternate takes of 'Laughing Stock' material and appearing to emanate from those sessions), but there was meant to be a sixth Talk Talk album provisionally titled 'Mountains of the Moon.'
The album 'Mountains of the Moon' by Talk Talk developed slowly, as the last two Talk Talk albums had, eventually becoming this eponymous debut released in 1998 - some, but not all the cast, survived to appear on this record. The last two Talk Talk albums shared more with the shoegazing scene or what became tagged post rock - blending Debussy with 'Astral Weeks', 'In a Silent Way', 'Rock Bottom', and 'Star Sailor.' Making more sense in the years that followed, settling well alongside Bark Psychosis or the more minimal Spiritualized material, while sharing a jazzy nature with someone like Tortoise ('Laughing Stock' sounds great followed by 'Millions Now Living Will Never Die'). The influence of those Talk Talk records seems even more apparent with certain records by Radiohead ('Pyramid Song', 'Sail to the Moon') and Sigur Ros. Those records were by a different band to those early Talk Talk songs, and their influence seems something that will get bigger and bigger. Hollis' mad methods and extended periods of recording, analogous to Kevin Shields' approach on 'Loveless', ended with some great material. The pain was his, the pleasure ours?
Hollis worked with others on this record, listening to 'Mark Hollis' now, it seems even more out there than the previous two records, and is the kind of record that Radio 3 would tout. Like 'The Marble Index' or the work of Godspeed You Black Emperor!, it is probably closest to classical music. Hollis hones down the approach of the last two Talk Talk albums to a more minimal state, sparse tracks which feature voice and piano and then sections that feature a jazz inflected woodwind orchestra and a completely jazz approach made towards bass and drums. Opener 'The Colour of Spring' may have a shared title with Talk Talk's third LP, but the sparse ambient piano piece sounds planets away from it - the spaces between stabs on the piano seeming like voids, as Hollis stretches those words towards infinity. This album is odd in that it prints the lyrics clearly in black on a white sleeve, though Hollis' voice stretches these words beyond comprehension and meaning often - as if disguising the words? Or moving beyond them - I guess it wouldn't be surprising if Hollis ended up making a classical piece, and not one in a crappy Costello/McCartney/Sting manner, but something that really kicks the Gorecki out of the Messiaen? Hollis, who has generally gone into hibernation since this album, did work on 2001's'Smiling and Waving' with Anja Garbarek (daughter of composer Jan), as well as on Allinson/Brown's minimalist 'AV1' in the same year as this album - so avant classical climes probably should be his (Hollis also appeared on the track 'Chaos' by UNKLE, though I can't remember a direct credit, more a 'thank you' on that album). His work rate is making Scott Walker look busy...
'Watershed' gives the album some mid-pace, spelling out the classical and jazz directions of the record, though avoiding anything that sounds like a traditional song - Hollis lost in a kind of repetition akin to Wyatt's bleating on 'Sea Song', always coming back to "Should have said so much...Makes it harder...The more you love..." 'Inside Looking Out' strips the album back again, extremely sparse piano and a minimal folky guitar, I'm pretty sure I read that Hollis' started studying certain instruments and classical approaches, evident in this song. 'Inside Looking Out's lyrics like the longest song here 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' have the least lyrics. There seems to be a Beckettian "Less is more" vibe here, and I'm sure "Fail better" is something Hollis lives by - the records sound that way...
'The gift' reintroduces jazzy bass and related percussion (feels more like percussion than drums), it should be noted that much of the album doesn't feature the lengthy cast of contributors - when Mark Feltham's harmonica makes an appearance, the relationship to 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' is made clearer. The songs feel like jams, Hollis' had cited Can and 'Tago Mago' at the time of 'Laughing Stock', and maybe that kind of approach towards strict classical/jazz music lead to this place? I don't know if Hollis' legendary mass recording/mass erasure approach was used here - though he missed a trick, an album of silence could have topped John Cage's legendary piece of silence and made 'Metal Machine Music' seem over-produced!
'The gift' just seems to vanish, into the long woodwind introduction of 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' - which is over eight-minutes long, though doesn't really seem to begin till about three minutes in. Hollis has cited the book 'Testament of Youth' as an influence on this song, though I'm sure he must have read other books on the First World War other than Vera Brittain's celebrated work - odd that a vast book like that gets a very long song with very few words. Those very few words are:
Dream cites freedom
And here I lay '
I'm not sure what other literature Hollis was exposed to, a poetic minimalism was here, though perhaps he felt that, again, less was more. Perhaps these vast themes could only be expressed in a few words, reading like an epitaph on a gravestone, or something a prisoner might scratch out on a wall or write in a final letter home. I was reading Jon Savage's excellent book 'Teenage' earlier and the section on the White Rose Movement seemed to link to this record, perhaps it was just the simple word the famous martyr scrawled on the back of her indictment sheet provided by the Gestapo:
The horrors of the two World Wars in the Twentieth Century somehow can be summed up in few words. In a previous review or two of this album, I've often compared 'A Life (1895 - 1915)' to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, which was probably something to do with Rilke's key work being written in the same age as that war and its aftermath. Or, it might have been an unconsious, though now quite obvious, attempt at imitating Lester Bangs' great piece on 'Astral Weeks' that ends with the lyrics of the title track set against the poetry of Lorca. Hollis, like Rilke, seems to be stripping down the words, and for some reason, I've always thought of the closing lines of 'To Music' in relation to 'A Life (1895 - 1915)':
'where was is within surrounds us
as practised horizon, as other
side of the air,
no longer lived in.'
I could imagine Hollis singing that on this album.
'Westward Bound' takes the album into an acoustic direction, a sort of folk music, though maybe someone like Derek Bailey could probably be cited. The alien moan of Hollis dominates, the words unclear, though written on the lyric sheet. This drifts into another woodwind driven introduction, to the epic 'The daily planet', there is a notion that a writer ploughs the same furrow, and it could be seen that this seventh track is in many ways, a re-exploration of the lyrical themes of 1982's 'Have You Heard the News?' The woodwind dominates, the drums and bass come in, and this song is as close as we get to conventional rock music (...which it's still nowhere near...) The bass feels like that gorgeous alternate take of 'Flamenco Sketches', or maybe it's just the same feeling in my senses. Hollis sounds definite now, railing against something - "Come far/Compared to who/Scoop the life you leech/Immune to ruse or rape's heredity...News first, " getting more definite with, "Shall I grow no more than I'm bound?/Enough of the pain..." This feels like a mantra, these words being used to surmount or transcend its subject, which still feels vague, though perhaps is given away in the title. Like the last few Scott Walker records, the lyrics are both vague and exact enough to guess at - if it is the media world, say the coverage of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, these words are even more important now. Watch Blair and Bush's abortion in the Middle East with the sound turned down and this song playing and I guess it becomes clear. Consider the media circuses over missing and murdered children, or helicopter shots of disasters - this world always summed up in JG Ballard's title, 'The Atrocity Exhibition.' Hollis isn't sure, but concludes the repeated mantra, "Shall I grow no more than I'm bound" with 'Hurts to see/Over undertone/Shame/Last to laugh/No."
The album concludes with 'A new Jerusalem', possibly the album's most sublime moment - Hollis' voice, acoustic guitar and a stripped piano drive this song. Childhood and seasons figure. Words don't sound like words, yet Hollis sings of 'wise words' and 'wild words.' These would be his last words though, 'Mark Hollis' his only solo album. A record that appeared in 1998, then seemed to vanish, and one not often cited alongside the last two Talk Talk albums which are kind of viewed as culty classics. I sometimes think I dreamt the existence of this album, but no, it's real - and feels like a travesty - such wonders at mid price! This record pushes another extreme, away from conventional pop or rock music - though I feel the progression from the third LP to albums four and five to this makes some sense (discourse around my previous Unsung review of this had some Unsung soul suggesting that this record makes more sense listened to between 'Spirit of Eden' and 'Laughing Stock' - I haven't checked the effect of that personally). How did Mark Hollis get to this place? Will he ever come back from it? Does 'The Colour of Spring' somehow sum it all up with the lines:
'Soar the bridges
That I burnt before
One Song among us all'
? - maybe these are all just 'one song', maybe Mark Hollis said everything with 'Mark Hollis'? This record was the end of a trip began in the mid 1980s, a record that floors me each time I listen, and a record that will feel Unsung for a little while longer...