Last week, Mark Hollis—best known as the frontman of British new wave/post-rock outfit Talk Talk—passed away at age 64 following a brief illness. Hollis was one of the few performers who can, without exaggeration, receive the label of “genius.” With just one plaintive yet virtuosic guitar solo or the subtle, ghostly quaver of his inimitable vocals, Hollis could elevate listeners to a higher plane. An uncompromising maverick throughout his career, the former child psychology student threw out the rock rule book and wrote his own guidelines. The rich, varied universe he created in the process more than stands the test of time.
In memory of Hollis, here’s a look at some of the best pieces of music he ever created. It’s a selection of miniature masterpieces that serve as an ideal introduction to the mind of this groundbreaking visionary.
“The Party’s Over”
(The Party’s Over, 1982)
For their debut, Talk Talk recruited veteran Bowie and Duran Duran collaborator Colin Thurston, who helped them channel their varied influences, from post-punk to prog rock, through a lens of sophisticated synthpop. The riveting title track sustains its thunderous, dreamlike atmosphere for six dizzying minutes. The song is epic and mysterious, filled with spectral choirs and elegant synth work from Simon Brenner. It continually overflows with the themes of mortality and regret Hollis would revisit time and again: “The crime of being uncertain of your love / Is all I’m guilty of.” Both sublime in its own right and an auspice of even greater things to come.
Listen: Talk Talk, “The Party’s Over”
“It’s My Life”
(It’s My Life, 1984)
“It’s My Life” is Hollis’ most well-known song—and it’s not even the version most people know. No Doubt scored a major hit in 2003 with their cover of the title track from Talk Talk’s sophomore record. With all due respect to Ms. Stefani and co., however, the original holds a slight edge over their more popular take. Hollis guides the lovely, atmospheric pop number through its sweeping shifts in mood, with stately, smoky synths giving way to sudden key changes and a towering chorus. Paul Webb’s bass and Lee Harris’ thumping drum programming, meanwhile form a steady, reliable bedrock. The iconic refrain—”It’s my life / Don’t you forget / Caught in the crowd / It never ends”—takes on a new meaning when belted by the individualistic, fame-wary Hollis. It’s a bold cry for agency in both his life and his artistic career.
Listen: Talk Talk, “It’s My Life”
“Give It Up”
(The Colour of Spring, 1986)
“Give It Up,” like most of The Colour of Spring, strikes a perfect middle ground between Talk Talk’s synthpop days and the more meditative work soon to follow. It’s a rousing, sensual gospel hymn rife with pounding drums and monumental crashes of piano and organ. The supreme conviction of Hollis’ impassioned delivery solidifies the track’s come-to-Jesus intensity. “Where does love come from,” he ponders, “when you’ve sold your reasoning out?” A harrowing portrait of a wayward soul yearning to find its way home again.
Listen: Talk Talk, “Give It Up”
(Spirit of Eden, 1988)
Emboldened by the success of Colour, Hollis and his bandmates began to unleash their experimental tendencies on glorious follow-up Spirit of Eden. “Desire,” in particular, finds the band in top form. Horns and keys warble and tiptoe tentatively as a quiet drum/bass fill kicks in. Hollis sings cryptically and without adornment, his simple words culling a shivery sea of passion, sex, and heartbreak (“Desire / Whispered / Spoken / In time / Rivers / Oceans”). The song includes some of Hollis’ most masterful uses of loud-soft-loud dynamics. The understated verses yield, without warning, to thrashing, primal choruses dotted with moaning guitar and shriek-y harmonica honks. It almost sounds like an outtake from The Joshua Tree—though Bono only wishes he could have written something this transcendentally thrilling.
“After the Flood”
(Laughing Stock, 1991)
Like Bitches Brew or Philip Glass’ Mishima score before it, Laughing Stock is one of those rare musical works wherein the music itself becomes a living, breathing organism. It dances, it leaps, it vibrates. Introspective, sprawling, and almost terrifyingly intimate, the record was dismissed by critics as pretentious and un-listenable. But contemporary discourse has rightly lauded it, along with its predecessor, as an early milestone of the post-rock genre. Not to mention it’s one of the most beautiful things anyone’s ever recorded.
Any of the album’s six tracks could qualify as a standout, but the ten-minute centerpiece “After the Flood” is easily among the most dazzling. Hollis’ army of guest musicians create a vast sonic tide pool, swirling hypnotically in and out of harmony and discord. He tells, in a soulful, somber croon, of an angry God whose people are helpless against his vengeful wrath. As the cover painting of a spare tree crowded with flocking birds suggests, however, a glimmer of hope lies within the song’s grimness. The pastoral background swells hint at a peace that one day, however soon or late, will arrive.
Listen: Talk Talk, “After the Flood”
“The Daily Planet”
(Mark Hollis, 1998)
Unless you count Laughing Stock—itself effectively a Hollis solo record—the songwriter released only one album under his own name. But this eponymous 1998 outing is anything but a footnote. On the contrary, it presents a microcosm just as eclectic and full as anything he made before it. Case in point: “The Daily Planet,” whose playful opening woodwinds slowly congeal into a jazzy, trance-like acoustic waltz. Hollis’ wounded whispers mirror the existential pain of his lyrics—think “spaghetti western directed by Terrence Malick.” It’s a glorious, devastatingly stark sound study from a man who truly mastered the art of silence.