It turns out I hadn't said everything I wanted to about Talk Talk after all. My little tribute to frontman Mark Hollis evolved slowly in the wake of his death, and the piece wound up a tribute to the band as a whole as much as the man himself. In truth, I'd been intentionally vague when it came time to discuss this particular album because I'd intended to dive into it with even greater detail as the March record of the month (appropriately enough, on the first day of spring).
By now, everyone knows Spirit Of Eden is my favorite record the band ever released. However, someone recently asked me where to start with Talk Talk. After all, that's a good question. Their career took a number of twists and turns, the major transition centering around their shift from the new wave, dancefloor-oriented pop of their early records and the freeform blissout of their later material.
Nestled at the very center of the band's five album run, The Colour Of Spring is the axis at which their sound hinges. Blending the indelible hooks of their earlier pop sensibilities with the abstract ambience of later records like Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, this record also features some of the band's most indelible songs (and with a group like Talk Talk, that's really saying something). As such, it makes the perfect place to start with the group. So take this record of the month as a gateway invitation to work your way forward and back through their discography, because this album — while wholly excellent — is just the tip of the iceberg...
The record opens with the casually unfolding rhythm of Happiness Is Easy, rolling on nothing but Paul Harris' drums and percussion for a solid half-minute before the first sparse accent of plaintive pianos enter the fray. The vocals of Mark Hollis enter with the twang of a guitar, as the song seems to gradually compose itself before your eyes. The throbbing, low-end rumble of double bass (played by Danny Thompson) drives the rhythm in a way that brings to mind Underworld at their most intimate, while the surrounding instrumentation takes on the mood of ECM's sleek European jazz, gently folded into the space of an unassuming pop song.
This sound often makes me think of Dave Stewart's soundtrack to the film Lily Was Here, especially the burning groove and sweeping atmosphere of the main theme, with Candy Dulfer blowing a mean sax in the grand central moonlight. Here, strings rise from the shadows — full of pathos — and underpinned by the organ playing of one Steve Winwood, all aspects swirling together over that unyielding, motorik rhythm as Mark Hollis leans into the chorus:
Take good care of what the priest says:
After death it's so much fun.
Little feet don't let your feet stray.
Happiness is easy...
In a surprise twist, a choir of children (credited as the Children From The School Of Miss Speake) carry the bridge back into the verse. At one point, a mutant horn staggers out of the mix (one of the hallmarks of Talk Talk is their utterly surreal warping of instrumentation into unrecognizable shapes). Showcasing the band's brilliance at shading between joy and sadness, the tune culminates in a sweep of uplifting strings, before receding back into an acoustic riff on guitar that accompanies the children's choir out into the long fade.
Mirroring the backing choir in Happiness Is Easy, the closing Time It's Time rides great waves of massed choir over a heavy downbeat stomp. In truth, it's my least favorite moment on the album, for a number of reasons. The drums are far too massive, with a crashing eighties sound utterly at odds with the organic crispness in evidence elsewhere. There's also a stark juxtaposition between the quiet verses and the booming chorus, whereas the rest of the record flows together quite naturally.1
Not that there's anything terribly wrong with the tune itself, it's just that the ragged execution sticks out like a sore thumb on an album that navigates such moody terrain so deftly. Subtle currents shift slowly in the shadows, with almost painfully intimate moments telescoping out into an all-encompassing widescreen sound like it were the most natural thing in the world.
The record hinges beautifully on this axis, as exemplified in a track like I Don't Believe In You, which is the split of Spirit Of Eden drawn in Spring's primary colors. There's a slow-burning intensity in the downbeat verses that gradually gives way to gorgeous Hammond B3 organ in the refrain. The tune is punctuated by a great ragged guitar solo from Robbie McIntosh, writhing in slow motion against the tune's downbeat blues with wild abandon.2 The song is suited perfectly to the album's vivid chamber pop arrangements, which in large part manage to transcend their time of origin.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that the band's bassist Paul Webb would later work with Beth Orton (under the pseudonym Rustin Man). I'd wager Portishead were huge fans of the group... one could even imagine the band doing a great cover of this tune. The downbeat rhythms — here and throughout this record — are more locked-down than they'd later be on Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, prefiguring the sound of moody trip hop like Massive Attack's Home Of The Whale. Even if they're not as brilliantly freeform as they'd become in a couple years, the rhythms do retain a thoroughly engaging sound, with tactile precision every tambourine and shaker seems to clasp at your eardrums.
In stark contrast, the cascading, widescreen sound of Life's What You Make It represents this album at its most direct and radio-friendly. Propelled by an invigorating electric guitar riff (this time from David Rhodes) that shimmers across its infectious four-note piano stomp, the sound seems to have more in common with the arena-sized ambitions of Simple Minds, with even the guitars themselves bearing a striking resemblance to something Charlie Burchill might play.
However, the band is wielding their strange powers of foresight once again, because this sounds not like the contemporary Simple Minds of Once Upon A Time but instead Simple Minds circa Real Life (which came out five years later!). I wonder if Life's What You Make It did influence the Scottish group's latter day sound (especially the song Real Life itself)? I wouldn't be surprised. From the breezy backing vocals to the swirling Mellotron and those great crescendos of organ, it's all there in technicolor, adding extra bite to the track's double-edged title.
It's worth noting that my Dad was actually the one to introduce me to Talk Talk's music way back in the day, almost by osmosis. I grew up on this stuff! Pops was a huge fan of the group's sound, and this song was a particular favorite. His thing is a strong appreciation of multi-layered music, which naturally rubbed off on me with all my atmospheric obsessions. It was actually his old cassette that I was rocking out to back in college, after putting a tape deck in my very first car. Pops' Talk Talk tape captured a perfect distillation of the band's sound in 90 minutes.
The similarly epic Give It Up is a massive organ stomp cut from the same cloth, although I contend that it's even better. Alternating between subdued verses — carried by haunting guitar lines and fragile lead vocals — and a piano-driven bridge, where Mark Hollis sings:
Gotta give it up
Gotta get a second chance
Gotta give it up
Gotta get a second chance and the joke's just started
And then a great swell of organs crash across the track in a massive wave of pure electricity. I already liked to this stirring performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1986,2 which turned out to be the last year the band would perform live together. It's without a doubt one of my favorite pieces of concert footage ever.
What this tune highlights is the band's gift for moving from the most serene passage to a pure rush of energy with unparalleled grace. Check out how after the mad heights of the chorus, the tune subtly collapses back into the muted verse with that gentle guitar passage. Or the way the tune's absolute climax builds into another surreal guitar solo, its twisted notes burning out in the darkness before the massive chorus wheels back once again to conquer all.
Closing out with a stripped-down coda, shades of gospel in Hollis' ad-libs over the backbeat as the organ line finally resolves itself once and for all. It's a very close call, but this might be my favorite track on the album.
The other contender is Living In Another World, which plays like the severe younger cousin to Happiness Is Easy, burning with a barely-controlled, exposed-nerve fury. It kicks off with a bang straight out the gate, in a roll of piano thunder and a snapping beat reeling out beneath shades of organ, Mark's moody couplets and acoustic guitars strummed with a precise rhythmic fury. The whole thing gradually builds until the organs swell into a flood of raw sound in the bridge — Hollis' impassioned lead vocals haunted by ghostly backing in the distance — before a bluesy harmonica enters the fray with a wild solo cascading up and down the soundscape.
The other day, I mentioned how important this record was for me in the dreary days of (early) high school, and no other song dovetails more perfectly with those memories than this song: Help me find a way from this maze... I can't help myself. Word, Mark, word... I couldn't have said it better myself.
Mention must also be made of the phenomenal bassline Paul Webb lays down in the chorus, throbbing and shape-shifting through the rhythm in fractal counterpoint to the lead progression. It's the true nth power behind the song's central groove, moving with a lunatic precision against the chiming, twin guitar attack of David Rhodes and Robbie McIntosh. Notably, Webb also provides the ghostly backing vocals in the chorus, haunting the melody with another indelible layer of intrigue. Rustin Man strikes again! Taken all at once in a great flood of sound, it adds up to a truly epic vision painted in sound.
If Living In Another World exemplified the record at its most intense, then the downcast shades of April 5th, played out on a lone piano while tambourine and shaker mark out the time. A fog of mutant horns hang in the distance, the tunings seeming to come from somewhere entirely outside the body pop, offering the strongest hint of things to come. The vocals of Mark Hollis are at their most delicate here, cradled by the warmth of that B3 organ that comes rising from the mist. I'm reminded of David Sylvian's Secrets Of The Beehive, even if this came out a whole year earlier.
It's worth noting two non-album b-sides from the period, It's Getting Late In The Evening and For What It's Worth, which were from the Life's What You Make It and Living In Another World singles, respectively. Both tunes further develop this abstract, ethereal mood, which turned out to presage the direction they'd begin to take a couple years later. Still, April 4th is the best of the bunch, sounding like a dress rehearsal for Spirit Of Eden.
Appropriately enough, The Future Sound Of London featured the song in their mind-bending BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix 2 in 1995 amidst a sea of post punk, downbeat ambient and twisted psychedelia. Alongside iconoclastic records like Andrea Parker & David Morley's Angular Art, 23 Skidoo's Porno Base and Fleetwood Mac's Albatross, its drifting abstract ambience felt perfectly at home .
Chameleon Day is even more deconstructed, with detuned Blue Note horns hanging lonely over the sparse pianos... it's by far the most freeform, deserted track on the record, plangent sounds ringing stark against the dead quiet. Reaching beyond even Spirit Of Eden to the abstract deconstructions of Laughing Stock and the Mark Hollis solo record, its the record's most intimate and unadorned moment. With that Hollis croon accompanied by nothing but a lone piano and windswept horns, this tune could have come from the era of Chet Baker and Mose Allison, only with the wounded pain and vulnerability that comes with Hollis' voice. This deeply spiritual sound might have closed out the record brilliantly, albeit on a quite different note than Time It's Time.
It's sound that no one else could touch. Lying at the crossroads of the group's earlier dancefloor synth execution and the lush oceans of sound painted in their later music, The Colour Of Spring is where both sides meet in a flash of brilliance. It makes the perfect place to start with the band's music, but I must warn you... once you're hooked, you'll find yourself tracking their sound out in every subsequent direction. And few things in music are more rewarding than that.
Still, the flutes in the extended coda have a minimalist attack along the lines of Penguin Café Orchestra.
In some ways, it recalls the bluesy space rock of Roy Buchanan's You're Not Alone and even Journey's I Would Find you, albeit marked by a striking intimacy far removed from such deep space sonics.
Talk Talk. Give It Up. At the Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1986. Live Performance.