I’ve noticed something of a theme in music recently: loudness. Loudness is the way to go it seems, from heavy music to overproduced pop music to bass-heavy club music to the remixed version of Raw Power where the audio levels frequently peak. I don’t know what it is: maybe loud music is more ballsy, perhaps it grabs our attention more. Maybe it’s just an attempt to give us the full package, making sure we don’t miss the little minutiae of the recording process: a tiny guitar lick here, a tinkle of piano there. Who knows? I’m not condemning it by any means, it’s just a little something I happen to have noticed. The reason I have noticed it is because I’ve found an album that does away with it all. (It’s like when an obese man loses a few stone: you only realize how much of what was there when it’s all gone) There aren’t any swelling guitar crescendos, singalong choruses, dissonant barrages of a musical invasion; no. Mark Hollis’ solo debut strips away the volume and frenzy of pop music, replacing it with a quiet reflectiveness and minimalist arrangements. In a world where music is loud, loud, LOUD, where every release seems to up the decibel average by another few notches, it’s unusual to find an album so quiet. It even begins with 18 seconds of silence: talk about starting as you mean to go on.
For those not in the know, Hollis was frontman and songwriter of 80’s synthpop band Talk Talk, a group who performed the impossible by actually being a group from the 80’s worth talking about now. And in another marvelous feat, their music drastically improved in quality with each album. Their first two were boring, dated synthpop, albeit clever and well written, but a style that I don’t care for nevertheless. With their subsequent albums they adopted a more baroque, art rock approach, forgoing commercial success for critical praise and a little more freedom to do their own thing. Their final two albums Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock were early post-rock masterpieces and wildly perplexing to critics, with their earlier synth pop style totally abandoned in favour of an abstract, improvised sound. Silence and slower, earthier arrangements were a key feature, and thus Mark Hollis is very much a natural continuation of that sound. Unlike most bands who become bigger and bolder with continued success and recognition, Talk Talk became smaller: not in terms of scale or scope, but rather in terms of brashness. I hesitate to call it a regression, but certainly they dumbed down the decibels. So Mark Hollis took this sound and did what was only natural to do: made it softer still.
The music contained therein is primarily piano-driven, with pianist Lawrence Pendrous pressing down on the ivories as sensitively as a doctor checking a flesh wound. Often only the faintest reverberations of the notes are heard. On Inside Looking Out, his piano is accompanied only by the most delicate strumming of Hollis’ acoustic and the ghostly exhaling of a bassoon. You can hear the piano stool creak in the near-silence. Lyrics are used sparingly, but their effect is that of an instrument: delicate and bitingly effective. A Life (1895-1915) is an 8 minute song with 14 words: 14. They punctuate the fragile, almost non-existent void between the music and earthly silence, carrying the composition gently onwards on soft, temperate wings. The title refers to Roland Leighton, a British soldier and fiancée of Vera Brittain, who was killed in The Great War. Hollis claimed that the mixed emotions of Leighton: his patriotism, excitement, disillusionment and fear, helped inspire the song and its whirling spectrum of emotional exploration. Horns and woodwinds gently cascade, jerk and writhe across the channels, soothing and sumptuous, discordant and unnerving but soft, soft, soft. Elsewhere on The Daily Planet those woodwinds coalesce and form a tender hook around which the track progresses. Perhaps the “loudest” and most “normal” track on the album, The Daily Planet proceeds around Hollis’ simple guitar riff and a tender, bluesy harmonica courtesy of Mark Feltham. The drums on the album, when used, are jazzy and gentle, the bass is tender and timid as a first time lover. Even the liner notes, with their tiny black on white lyrics and credits, are desperately minimal. Frankly, everything on Mark Hollis is soft, gentle and sparse. It’s quietly intimate, like a formal dinner evening, and just as warm and inviting. It’s a poetry recital, it’s a small family wedding, it’s a romantic walk on a deserted beach, an afternoon reading in your conservatory. The theory that less is more is no further exemplified than on this album.
Hollis believes that silence can be just as powerful and important as music, and he utilizes silence, the long, anticipatory gap between notes, where others might choose to utilize a guitar solo. Less is more, less is more. And Hollis doesn’t just perform in that ethos: he lives it. Mark Hollis is his only solo album after a fairly prolific career with Talk Talk. Released in 1998, 7 years after Talk Talk’s final album, he has yet to release a follow up, having retired from the music business to dedicate more time to his family. In a career that’s gone from loud to soft, from bold to delicate, it makes sense. From bold synth pop to delicate post rock to barely audible baroque stylings, giving us 14 years of silence might just be the most logical thing Hollis could have done.
Words - Adam