The first time I heard about Talk Talk, it was by way of a friend, in what amounted to an insult. "They have a singer, Mark Hollis, whose voice is so nasal he sounds like he's singing through his forehead. You can't make out a word. So they have the lyrics on the album sleeve, in his handwriting. You can't read his handwriting either." He laughed, but I didn't: what all that told me was the words weren't what really mattered, and those things were Hollis's way of telegraphing all that. I have always been more charitable to a fellow artist than I have any right to be. I can't say I have ever regretted it. I certainly don't regret it when it comes to Talk Talk or The Spirit Of Eden, even if I didn't actually hear the album until almost thirty years after that discussion.
The Spirit Of Eden first came out in 1988, when I was still in high school. My first encounter with it was in 2017 or so, when it had become clear the hell we were going through as a society wasn't going to pass like a bad cold. I spent a good two hours sitting at my computer with headphones on, playing the album twice all the way through, immersing myself in it as I would a blood bath, trying to reconcile everything I'd heard with what else might have been going on musically at the time it came out and failing completely. That it sounded like it had been recorded yesterday said as much about how brilliant Hollis and his fellow bandmates were as it did about how popular culture has settled for repeating itself: there wasn't a single record from 1958 I could put on in 1988 that would have sounded as fresh as this.
When Eddie Hazel played the stupefying guitar solo that formed the core of Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain", George Clinton is reputed to have coaxed the performance out of him by telling him, "Play like someone told you your momma just died, and then play like you found out she was still alive." The Spirit Of Eden sounds like Hollis told the rest of the band, and himself, "Play like you hearts just broke, and then healed." Each song on its own, and the album as a whole, sounds like it comes out of a hollow of longing that we enter into just long enough for it to fill back up with grace.
There are only six songs on this record, none shorter than five and a half minutes ("Inheritance") and one nearly ten ("The Rainbow"). They stretch out to such a length that their empty spaces fill back up again with a multitude of little gestures — the skronk of an acoustic guitar, the bleat of a harmonica, each on their own jagged and jarring but not ultimately out of place. Each song flows freely not just into the next but into any of the others; one slice of "The Rainbow" is just the intro to "Desire". This encourages listening to the album as a single unit, something under attack as far back as the compact disc era, and something we're less than ever in the habit of doing in the age of streaming and digital downloads. Even though the songs mirror and echo each other, no one of them alone will suffice to capture the flavor of the album. "I Believe In You", the single released from the album, has many of the pieces of the whole, but only the whole has the whole.
The whole, in total and then later in parts once you know the whole, is beautiful. You may not be able to hum the melody for "The Rainbow" even after the third or fourth time you hear it, because the song is so long and elliptical and shapeless, but you know it's there, and you know once you've heard it you can't mistake it for anything else. "Eden", "Desire", and "I Believe In You", my favorite tracks, are not my favorite because of the melodies alone, but also for how they honor the spirit at the heart of the record. They make you want to go back and listen to the whole thing again, so you can see how all the pieces fit together.
A true original, I'm fond of saying, is something of a pain to actually experience. The Spirit Of Eden frustrated me intensely on my first listen, because there were countless times when it seemed to be setting me up for something and then switching abruptly to something else. "Desire" embodied this most brutally: a magnificent quiet build-up, then a jarring loud passage, then another quiet build-up, then an even more jarring contrast, and so on. My nose wrinkled. But then I saw it as the strategy it was meant to be: it forced us to actually pay attention to the music, to accept it on its own terms instead of wanting from it what the rest of popular music had trained us to believe would come. If popular culture is a detriment, it is only because it is a bad teacher — because it teaches us to be suspicious of adventure, not only its fruits but the mere doing of it at all.
Then again, Talk Talk had been doing this all along. Even their first records, for all of their pop accessibility and radio-friendly songwriting, had the pieces for something like The Spirit Of Eden coalescing throughout. Easier to hear it in retrospect, of course, but when it first happened, most everyone was taken aback. Doubly so with the follow-up, Laughing Stock, an album even further removed from any associations one might make with its creators, or for that matter its moment in musical time.
The best of any art form seems to me to not be a matter of a particular school, style, movement, or persuasion. It is more akin to, as Dale Peck put it about literature, a republic of loosely associated creations, individual votes cast in the form of individual creators or individual works. Here is one such vote.
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