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Mark Hollis - Mark Hollis (1998)
A memoir on one of the greatest albums ever recorded
The lone self-titled album by Mark Hollis, released in 1998, is one of the greatest albums ever recorded in popular music. It sounds pretentious and biased, I know. Yet what makes this work of art stand out from anything else on the market, especially at that time, is that the album is a personal taste of “third stream” music, unlike anything that happened before it. The third stream can be defined as a hybrid between classical music and jazz, but Hollis adds a third category of American indie rock. Now imagine a trio genre of European avant-garde classical, black American free jazz, and white American indie rock focused on D.I.Y. home recording, and you get the sound of this beautiful and timeless album.
This isn’t to say that Hollis’ previous Talk Talk albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, aren’t inferior. By 1988, Spirit of Eden sound bewildered the record labels and the fans. Gone are the days of Depeche Mode synthpop, and Talk Talk jumps into the fray of art pop and intimate acoustics. As much as I would like to discuss my interest in those last two albums, the isolated and seven-year-later happening of the self-titled album needs recognition. Hollis would no longer make any new music and instead would make cameos for Unkle, Anja Garbarek, and secretly contributed an experimental track for the 2012 television series, Boss. 1998 was the final year, and goodbye, of Mark Hollis.
Some journalists have stated that Hollis innovated the “post-rock” genre, where rock music focuses on texture and timbre over the classical pop structure. However, this is a misnomer, as Hollis was creating his perfectionist sound against anything else. “Third stream” is a good definition of the sound, but yet, Hollis drifted away from the records he was trying to emulate, and insisted on silence as the priority, and probability and sound-ducking as the technique. Although not a classically trained musician or a Jazz player, Hollis tried to orchestrate a mono-note experiment of the intimate, classical sound with no prior understanding of intense music theory. As Hollis once wrote about his composition style, "Before you play two notes learn how to play one note - and don't play one note unless you've got a reason to play it."
Hollis was interested in synesthesia techniques, where a note could say a word or a sound could make you see a color. For Hollis, “music was there to underscore mood,”like in the medium of film. His interest in quiet sound and sparse minimalism is a testament to this practice. Some of his favorite works of music include,
Miles Davis - Sketches of Spain (1960)
Miles Davis - Porgy and Bess (1959)
Duke Ellington - In a Sentimental Mood (1935)
Can - Tago Mago (1971)
John Cage – Orchestral Works (1994 CD series)
Maurice Ravel - Trois poèmes de Mallarmé (1914)
The work of John Coltrane (1926 - 1967)
The work of Robert Wyatt (1945-)
The work of Morton Feldman (1926 - 1987)
The work of Franco Donatoni (1927 - 2000)
The work of Gil Evans (1912 - 1988)
The work of Robert Johnson (1911 - 1938)
The work of John Lee Hooker (1912 - 2001)
Hollis argues, “The best way to be original is to be as eclectic as you can and the best way to do it is with belief. It's as simple as that."And he asserts, “I love sound. And I love silence. And in a way, I like silence more.”
Hollis would never look back on a record once it was recorded. As stated about recording or mixing a song, “…When a record has been mixed, that's it. I don't listen to it again or think 'We should have done this or that differently.’When addressed if the latter Talk Talk albums and his solo release should have been targeted towards a “classical” consumer audience, Hollis writes,
“The existence of such sections is unfortunate anyway, be it in companies or music generally. And on top of that, there are these pointless arrangements determining when something is released, and when one is supposed to listen to it. If you look at the Blues for instance, I myself would find it impossible to consider the Blues of the nineties only. If you want to understand something you have to look at all of the past 90 years.”
His solo album was intended to create a work of art that could not be defined by any time period it was created in. Hollis said,
“The idea is that the album won’t be recognizable as having come from any time, having been recorded in any particular year. And the fact you’re working with acoustics, helps, means, you can’t date [it].”
“The way I think about it is to try and make an album that is unique. To try and make an album that could exist outside of the period in which it's written or recorded. That's the aim.”
It’s not that Hollis wanted to emulate the work of his idols, but insisted he could take their techniques and styles to create a work of art that could push boundaries in popular music. Hollis implied that his own song, “The Colour of Spring,” wasn't a reference of the third Talk Talk album, and rather written as a commentary about the decadence of the modern artist and his freedom from it. It is perhaps a self-parody of the Talk Talk image and agenda.
“It is definitely not an autobiographical song. The song is about people who think in absolutely materialistic ways, do anything just for money, have no moral principles, and are going to tell you something about the beauty of nature. And yet they know nothing about it because these are completely contradictory ideas. The next thing is a very romantic idea: that while you have this sensation of beauty you can fly over the bridges that you burnt before...”
Hollis wanted to get far away as possible from the record companies and associated acts that tried to put his artistic purpose in a box. This meant that he had to also get away from his own band members, his business connections, and the press that hated his goal to reach an ultimate, artistic expression. The so-called “artist” today only can mimic and emulate the selfish desires of the masses, where music becomes “formulaic,” and the artist never reaches his goals of perfection, even when the power and platform are given to him. Hollis felt that exact existential crisis, that he was to be never understood as an artist, that his audience could never understand him on an intellectual level, and the motivation to make records was dwindling away.
In 2018, Japan front man David Sylvian suggested this about the struggle of the intellectual artist,
“I'm not currently thinking about a future in the arts. To quote Sarah Kendzior from her book The View From Flyover Country, “In an article for Slate, Jessica Olien debunks the myth that originality and inventiveness are valued in U.S. society: 'This is the thing about creativity that is rarely acknowledged: Most people don't actually like it.”
Hollis was in an uphill battle against his own audience that could not understand the art and appreciation of classical or American jazz, or his futile attempt to fashion it with indie rock. “Post-rock” was the real invention of Hollis’ experimental flows and sound collage, never repeating the same verse twice, or hinting back at a familiar structure that was done before. It felt like the early experimentation years of synthesizers and electronic music, and yet, Hollis realized that he didn’t need electronic instruments anymore, even suggesting he needed only instruments made before the year of 1967 to catch an authentic charm to his sound.
To Hollis, “I just wanted to record everything as it is, an album without producing. To make you feel like being in a room together with these people.”He also assures us with the message of the album, that, “Music is an escape. And yet at the same time the exact opposite of it, something that deepens your senses and forms your perception of things, i.e. your life.” Hollis understood that music wasn’t meant as instant gratification, artificial beauty, or irrational escapism. Rather, the musician himself is expressing a hidden reality that we can’t see, and thus great music can give us complete answers to philosophy as a whole, and new ways of thinking that make us better people.
Music can be relaxing, like playing the piano for the sake of it, and yet unrevealed truths about ourselves we never acknowledged. Like religious monks who make use of chanting, we create our mantras through sound. Resonance becomes as important as the single note that is played.
“I can’t imagine not playing music, but I don’t feel any need to perform music and, I don’t feel any need to record music. I’m really quite happy just to play one note, and just to hit it at different volume levels. And just, you know, see how long it will resonate before it stops.”
It’s not that Hollis was looking for noise. He was looking for the perfected sound, which by our ears, could be “read” as the aesthetics and calmness of classical without the music theory context. We are left with the Buddhist chants that are as old as humans learning to sing.
His solo album is only 46 minutes long and only composed of eight tracks. Hollis wrote songs about esoteric subjects, at whim. The fifth track, “A Life (1895 - 1915)” is about the life of Roland Leighton, a British soldier and poet who died at the age of 20 during battle, and his girlfriend, Vera Brittain, wrote Testament of Youth, in dedication to him. Hollis noted that the mood swing at the turn of the century was incredible, and noted that music can sound the same way,where sound can be furious, and then “dies” in slow tempo. The obsession with youth can be traced to such writers as Arthur Rimbaud and Raymond Radiguet, where both death and joy are celebrated at the same time in art. I see Hollis dancing in the same “death” excitement by Rimbaud and Radiguet that he expresses in A Life.
Hollis never acknowledged the existence of The Flaming Lips or Radiohead in 1998, and gave no comment.He was in his world and cared only about the music he was trying to show the world. Hollis tricks the listener into a “virtue without a narrative,” where the composition is rampant and bipolar, while the lyrical narrative is only a secondary base for understanding what’s truly going on.
“If I think of favourite films of mine, what they deal with is character and virtue, they don't deal with narrative. That's a very secondary thing. The two films I would think of more than anything would be The Bicycle Thieves and Les Enfants Du Paradis.”
Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene managed multiple musicians and recorded over 60 takes of instrument improvision for the solo album.With all the audio clips gathered, they constructed songs out of them, that would naturally fade in and out of the song, giving a faux-improvision feel. Bass player Simon Edwards said that the process of recording Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock was so lax, that the creative method was, “Just play what you felt like.” In fact, EMI records were so angry at the anti-pop work of Spirit of Eden, that they sued everyone for “technical incompetence.” Mark Hollis was likely only given the utmost freedom after he cut ties with EMI. The creation of Laughing Stock and his solo album was in part a final swan song to the industry.
After the death of Mark Hollis in 2019, close friend and producer, Tim Friese-Greene, still creates new albums in the third stream style of the late Hollis. His recent 2022 album, “Melodic Apoptosis,” is a tribute to the solo album of Hollis, and the improvision-collage sound that was pioneered. I am amazed nobody has picked up this record or it has never reached any mainstream success as of today. Friese-Greene continues the tradition of the original mission of Mark Hollis, and yet nobody seems notices or care as the album is too obscure to be acknowledged.
There is a part of me that thinks Tim Friese-Greene was a bad influence upon Hollis, where the detraction of mainstream success was in part an obsession over this third stream sound that Friese-Greene was invested in, and Hollis believed that was also the way forward against everyone’s wish to be pop. Nonetheless, this “fuck you” was a radical statement against the fans from both Mark and Tim. The pursuit of creating intimate and experimental music was a surprise and a stubborn statement.
Hollis remained a hermit for the next twenty years until he died of cancer. He wanted to be left alone, he wanted to be a dad, and didn’t want to associate anymore with the name “Talk Talk” or making music. Hollis had no purpose in producing a new album after his solo. He said what he had to say, and felt like he could do no more. Maybe Hollis lost a creative urge to produce, or maybe he gave up on the listener, thinking people would never understand the possibility of the novel, as previously stated by David Sylvian. Yet a “post-rock” market was able to understand Hollis’ music, and it transformed into the 90’s alternative movement.
Hollis was sent on to create an original and personal hybrid style of classical music that came with experimentation and inward intimacy. He was interested in capturing a sound that was live and different. His solo album is beyond anything that a current musician can do in 2023. So much of himself is expressed in the music, we not only have questions for him, but we question ourselves and start to see a death that turns into something precious. A good writer can write for someone who can’t speak, and I believe Mark Hollis made music for people who couldn’t express themselves before. As an artist, the artist should be focused on the goal of clarity and purpose, something that has never been done before, but out of will, create a visible project that can be realized. It can change the way people think about music, and demand intellectual investment in sound and text.
Hollis’ solo album is one of the greatest recordings ever produced. I swear by this album’s power, and much of it shapes the way I look at art and how I make it. I look up to Mark Hollis in the way I can express myself, how I can execute art, and what I should think about in application. Hollis’ philosophy of artistic creation is superior in every way possible.
I know it sounds like I’m exaggerating, but whenever I listen to this album, I can think about myself, and get inspired to create. If you put your mind to it, and you can see it, you can create it. Art should never cater to the lowest common dominator, nor should it ever appease a niche group of people. Art should be about the improvement of the self and the intellectual application of conceiving something that needs multiple readings and sharing this enlightenment with others.
I don’t want to make mediocre art. I want to create my own magnus opus. I want to make art that no one has done before. And Mark Hollis has done that before anyone else, thus making his album the greatest of all time.
“Some Important Lessons On Music”, by Mark Hollis – taken from an interview with Danish TV, 22nd February 1998. (https://dervswerve.wordpress.com/2015/03/08/mark-hollis-on-music-1998-a-transcript/).
Stubbs, David, “Mark Hollis: Talking liberties”, VOX, February 1998. (https://web.archive.org/web/20141031025637/http://users.cybercity.dk/~bcc11425/)
Weber, Stefan, “The path over the burnt bridge,” Subaudio, 1998. [English translation]. (https://web.archive.org/web/20141031025637/http://users.cybercity.dk/~bcc11425/).
Beaumont, Mark, “Super Shy Guy", NME, February 14, 1998. (https://web.archive.org/web/20101222125924/http://users.cybercity.dk/~bcc11425/IntNME140298.html)
Bonner, Michael (13 July 2018). "An interview with David Sylvian". Uncut. Archived from the original on August 9th, 2020. (https://www.uncut.co.uk/features/interview-david-sylvian-106403/).
Brees, Gwenaël (film director), “In a Silent Way” documentary film. 2020. At 1:00:47, according to sound engineer, Phil Brown.
“Return from Eden”, The Wire, January 1998. (https://web.archive.org/web/20141031025637/http://users.cybercity.dk/~bcc11425/)
Ibid, . At 1:03:50, according to Simon Edwards.
Ibid, . At 1:09:16, according to sound engineer, Phil Brown.