Talk Talk - “Spirit of Eden” Turns 30

Reflecting on the Influential Album Originally Released on September 16, 1988

Sep 17, 2018 By Timothy Michalik Web Exclusive
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"It was very, very psychedelic. We had candles and oil wheels, strobes going, sometimes just total darkness in the studio. You'd get totally disorientated, no daylight, no time frame." So goes the story, told by Talk Talk's engineer Phil Brown, when discussing the synth pop-turned-art rocker's landmark 1988 album Spirit of Eden. This bit of background knowledge only amplifies the mythos of Spirit of Eden. Never in my life have I experienced anything remotely close to the barren soundscapes that exist within Spirit of Eden, and I hope I never do. Spirit of Eden catches you dead in your tracks, translating our deepest inquiries of existence and the metaphysical into something fathomable, or at least digestible.

It is a lonesome, delicate beast. There is nothing communal about Spirit of Eden, nor is there anything particularly uplifting about what lies inside. Spirit of Eden is meditative and reflective of our primitive audial intuitions; vibrations, frequencies, pitchesthese are used as a means of total and absolute fundamental dissection. Dissection of recorded sounds, dissection of traditional rock albums, dissection of one's past selfSpirit of Eden did all of these. I have attempted to dissect my consciousness, isolate myself, and come out of that period of reflection anew, reformed and reaching equilibrium. Of course, it didn't work. But I also don't have the mental capacity to do so with a concept so broad and vague as "rock" music. Mark Hollis did the unthinkable.

And so, Hollis came forth with a "departure" record. Not only is Spirit of Eden a departure from the synth-pop glitz of Talk Talk's salad days, it is a departure from traditional recorded music as a whole. Instead, Hollis stuck to cinematic soundscapes as an ideology and artistic approach, crafting Spirit of Eden in the vain of a film, rather than a full-length studio album. Its complexities develop and unfold over its 41-minute run time; six singular, climactic manifestos, strewn together by Hollis' bleak and disconsolate voice. Every song from Spirit of Eden is its own separate act, a six-part passage of growth, improvisation, and one's place in the physical world.

What confirms Spirit of Eden's legacy isn't the record label disputethough EMI weren't exactly thrilled with The Colour of Spring's successoror the "unmarketability" of the album. Even Wilco's 2001 opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was at one point deemed "unmarketable." Sometimes the most "unmarketable" albums transpire to the finest and most prized albums in a discography. What solidifies its place in the canon of musical masterpieces, though, is its aura, its mood, its timing1988 was a strange year for music, and Spirit of Eden embodies that. Punk was dead; hip-hop was becoming semi-mainstream; synth-pop was dying a slow but ultimately righteous death. Revivalism, in the way it was used in the 20th century, wasn't even a concept, reallyhere was still so much ground to cover, so much to accomplish, so much to be heard.

Up until that point in music history, the idea of an album representing such a placid temperament was only comprehensible among modal jazz musicians. Albums such as Gil Evan's Out of the Cool and Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain or Get Up With Itthese were the spacious albums that existed within a similar realm of Spirit of Eden. And even so, there are seldom jazz albums as spacious and patient as Spirit of Eden. When everybody else was attempting to progress, finding new ways in which to innovate and craft something new and groundbreaking, Hollis went backwards, seeking influence in the jazz records that shaped his life. By traveling back in time, searching and digging, Hollis ultimately transcended beyond anything fathomable. Call it post-rock, call it art-rockwhatever "label"-rock you slap on it, it serves no justice to Spirit of Eden.

Spirit of Eden is desolate, a meditation on creative solitude, singular and undeniably prophetic. It is something that lives in each and everyone of usnot the literal album, but the place in which Hollis traveled to, shedding his own artistic inhibitions to embrace something so incredibly beyond human error and thought. The way Hollis squeals on "Eden""Everybody will need someone to live by/Rage on omnipotent"these are ways in which Hollis surrendered to something beyond comprehension. It is the ultimate sacrifice, poetry and prose of biblical proportions.

The dispositions scattered across Spirit of Eden could fill an entire table of contents: piano, organ, guitar, Variophon, electric bass, harmonium, harmonica, Mexican bass, trumpet, violin, shozygs, bassoon, oboethe list goes on. A gorgeous set of arrangements pulsating against subzero rhythms, eventual instrumental tantrums found within the thick of every individual climax. This is what makes Spirit of Eden such a vital record in the case of popular music. It is impossible for somebody to say that everything has been done before. It's a common trope, and I'm sure that Hollis thought the same thing. Yet, here we are, 30 years later, the artistry and patience of Spirit of Eden still resonating and sounding as authentic and groundbreaking as ever.

Three decades on, Spirit of Eden is still an eternal mystery, like the oral stories passed down hundreds of times to formulate a sacred text. In many ways, it is a religious text, a reflection of a species too advanced for their own good. Mark Hollis was ahead of his time, barely retaining sanity in the midst of Spirit of Eden. But the following albums, 1991's Laughing Stock as Talk Talk, and Hollis' 1998 self-titled, solo debut, Mark Hollis, were the last two documents that Hollis ever recorded. Hollis proved himself a celestial being, an idea, a concept. Spirit of Eden was thought to be the beginning, but instead it marked the beginning to the end. Its staying power has proved that there is nothing like it. Hopefully there never will be. The spirit and dissonance of Hollis lives within every reverberation, drumbeat, and harmonica ring to this day. Rage on, omnipotent.

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