When Talk Talk Invented Post-Rock With ‘Spirit of Eden’
When Talk Talk delivered their fourth album, Spirit of Eden, to their record label EMI in early 1988, the reaction was shock and horror.
Band leader Mark Hollis had always resented his work being connected with the New Romantic and synth-pop movements of the earlier part of the decade, but the label hadn’t minded the success of songs like “It’s My Life” and “Life’s What You Make It.”
Presented with the follow-up to 1986’s The Colour of Spring, EMI didn’t hear any hits. Instead it heard a six-track album that defied definition, with no song less than five minutes, elements of jazz, classical, prog, ambient and dub music and an underlying attitude once described as “almost heroically uncommercial.” Within three months of release it had been deleted and the band had been dropped.
But that wasn’t the end of Spirit of Eden ... or Talk Talk.
If the end results were non-standard, so too was the recording process. Taking advantage of complete control and an unlimited budget, Hollis – who died in February 2019 – forbade any businessmen from attention sessions, and spent nearly a year working on the project. A wide range of guest musicians included prog double bassist Richard Thompson, classical violinist Nigel Kennedy and the Chelmsford Cathedral choir, which should have been ample warning that all was not straightforward.
In 2012, after former Talk Talk members Hollis, Tim Friese-Greene, Lee Harris and Paul Webb all refused to be interviewed about the album, engineer Phill Brown recalled sessions in an “endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together.”
“Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense," he noted. "There was very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones.”
“There was real nervousness and misunderstanding about that record,” said Nigel Reeve, who’d been a low-grade EMI exec in the ‘80s but later rose to senior level. “Nobody got it. There wasn't a hit single and they didn't know how to sell it. It caused problems.”
At the time of release, label manager Tony Wadsworth said Talk Talk "are not your ordinary combo and require sympathetic marketing. They're not so much difficult as not obvious. You've just got to find as many ways as possible to expose the music.”
Those ways were not found. The only single, a radio edit of “I Believe in You,” was a flop, and Hollis called the accompanying video a “massive mistake." “I thought just by sitting there and listening and really thinking about what it was about, I could get that in my eyes," he explained. "But you cannot do it. It just feels stupid.”
Watch Talk Talk's 'I Believe in You' Video
On top of that, Talk Talk didn’t tour to promote the release, after having played their last live show in 1986. “There is no way that I could ever play again a lot of the stuff I played on this album because I just wouldn't know how to,” Hollis explained. “So, to play it live, to take a part that was done in spontaneity, to write it down and then get someone to play it, would lose the whole point, lose the whole purity of what it was in the first place.”
Defending Spirit of Eden as a work viewed out of context, he argued that "it's only radical in the modern context. It's not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago. If we'd have delivered this album to the record company 20 years ago, they wouldn't have batted an eyelid.”
Brown described the reclusive Hollis as “stubborn, focused, but humorous,” adding, “In some ways a genius, but it was a team effort – and it was a big, talented team.”
Listen to Talk Talk's 'The Rainbow'
Talk Talk would return with one final album, 1991's Laughing Stock, which followed the path set by its predecessor, and then they were gone. Hollis released a lone self-titled solo album in 1998 then retired from music. “I choose for my family," he said. "Maybe others are capable of doing it, but I can't go on tour and be a good dad at the same time.”
Spirit of Eden may have failed commercially but it didn’t fail artistically. In the years since the album's release, the genre known as post-rock would build upon Talk Talk’s ideas, securing Hollis’ status as a visionary rather than a refusenik. The band has been hailed by artists including Radiohead, Elbow, Mogwai, St Vincent, the 1975, No Doubt and many others.
Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich called the LP “an incredibly emotional record that I just found myself listening to like a classical piece, you know, as a whole. ... I couldn’t even tell you the separate names of any of the tracks on any of the Talk Talk albums, because you know, you listen to it, and you listen to the whole thing.”
Elbow’s Guy Garvey said following Hollis' death that the Talk Talk leader "started from punk and by his own admission he had no musical ability. To go from only having the urge, to writing some of the most timeless, intricate and original music ever is as impressive as the moon landings.”