have stood atop the cliff with this record in my ears and I have felt at once my insignificance and substance in the countenance of awe, the wind in my face, the expanse of the sea that leases us the land stretched endlessly before my eyes, an aspect of divinity within me. For the moment I am nothing and my place is all.
In the end it all comes down to God. Culture is our means of understanding, celebrating and refuting God, our means of explanation and expression. Life is about God and music is about life. I stand here as an atheist who is desperate to believe but who cannot. My head and my guts tell me we are alone. Theists invoking cosmology would have us believe that each thing has a cause and that the first cause is God, but they have no evidence, there is no reason for their conceit, no justification for the predicate that the first cause must by necessity be God. There is no justification for the existence of a first cause at all, no stance that could deny infinite causal regression or deny a theoretical origin in chaos. The ontological argument claims that the mere notion of God must necessarily instantiate the existence of God; if there can be an omnipotent, omniscient creator then there must be. If we can imagine God then God must exist. But we can also imagine time travel, and yet if time travel were to be possible in the future then it would also be possible now, because we are in time and would therefore be reachable were it possible to reach to any time but now. But it is not. There are more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy; and yet more things dreamt of in our philosophy than are between heaven and earth. I refute the free-will defence, I refute the teleological argument. I scorn the unfaithful faithful who congregate and obfuscate the truth behind their theism, the ones who take the second path to God that is not faith but is rather fear, the mothers “numb to and devout to”. The only true origin of faith is the sensation of divinity within your soul, the ignorant perception of the potential for Godmanhood. I understand this, but I cannot feel it. God is dead; I stand with Nietzsche, with Dawkins, with Gautama and Tzu, with Heidegger and Sartre, with Pullman! Even if it means standing alone in purgatory, in eternity.
And yet this record inspires in me feelings of such power and sensation that from the moment it begins, nascent strings and gossamer brass like the whisper of beautiful rain to come, until the moment it quietly dies amid pleas for a divine love to come withdraw us from the curse of freedom, that I almost could believe.
Talk Talk started the 80s as another inessential synth-pop group, perhaps more erudite and less style-conscious than the hordes, but musically and aesthetically of a kind. By It’s My Life, their second album, they were eschewing gratuitous synthetic ostentation and demonstrating a knack for crafted, clever pop music that won them plaudits and mass audiences. By 1986 and The Colour Of Spring, they had grown into something wonderful; a rich, many-hued musical garden of delights, seeding driving, anthemic pop such as “Life’s What You Make It” with sublime ambiences and diverse rhythmic and melodic sources. I could talk of the pleasures of The Colour Of Spring at length, but suffice to say that it was that inspirationally rare thing; a record that deservedly sold millions. Keen to nurture further success, EMI allowed the band a substantial budget and a lengthy deadline for the follow-up.
Lead by singer/songwriter Mark Hollis, Talk Talk (drummer Lee Harris , bassist Paul Webb and producer/keyboardist Tim Friese-Green) locked themselves in a former church with engineer Phill Brown and began to work. They refused to speak to EMI, refused to work to the set deadline, refused to acknowledge the budget. They refused to allow anyone outside of the core group and their contributors to hear the music they were making. They stayed in this musical and spiritual chrysalis of hibernation for eleven months.
When finally they emerged they announced there would be no singles and no tour to support the album – none of the material was radio-friendly and all of it was too complex to realistically reproduce live. On first hearing of Spirit Of Eden their A&R man cried; possibly because of the beauty he was exposed to, but more likely because he could hear the sound of a potentially lucrative career being martyred in the name of music and in the name of faith, and his job being borne along with it. EMI dropped the band and later sued them for breach of contract. Phill Brown has talked of the album being recorded in a devotional, near-psychedelic shroud of incense, candles, oil projectors and occasional total darkness; a disorienting window outside perception of space and time where hours and hours of tapes of improvisations around themes were recorded before Hollis and Friese-Green meticulously and devotedly pieced together what would become the record, using newly available digital technologies, like Miles Davis or Can had done 20 years before, but now with complete freedom from the compromised sound quality that analogue editing brings.
Spirit Of Eden occupies a space outside musical genres, an area between pop and jazz that is painted vividly with the colours and textures of blues, ambient, classical, rock... The first half of the record consists of a suite of three tracks which flow organically between each other, The Rainbow starting inauspiciously with subdued strings and the rumour of trumpets, the awakening of the record heralded by squalls of over-amped harmonica and electric guitar, Friese-Green in thrall to Lamonte Young, Cage and Stockhausen while Hollis invokes his fascination with Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. But where Johnson’s soul was sold, Hollis finds his saved amid the fall and rise, the surging tide. The passages of neo-classical ambience belie the loose and buried structure; there are refrains here, musical and almost lyrical, muffled talk of the lawyer’s song, the jailer’s song, the unending trial, before whispered silence drifts us into Eden. Time and again the battle between temptation and redemption ushers us between chaos and bliss, the storm gathering, those gentle passages between the fray opening up the clouds to reveal regions of crystal blue away from the shredding guitar that wails with the dependency and need that hold us back from salvation.
The final section of the opening triptych washes in on cowed church organ, ruminative, reverent, before the implosion that is foreseen but irresistible, Hollis a rage against resignation, a cry of “that ain’t me babe” again and again before a confession of escaped weakness, a refusal to go under; “I’m just content to relax / than drown within myself”, anything but content, turning the ire to aid salvation. All the while the guitar is ferocity, harsh plains of bass and the biting wind of harmonica overset with clattering, broiling drums, percussive white-horses eroding the self to the point of catharsis and sublimation, unstoppable even when the rest has fallen by the wayside, Web and Harris together a source of elemental rhythm, powerful, refined, sometimes elusive and always measured to perfection.
With hindsight, Hollis’ distinctive strain of Christian mysticism is traceable via his lyrics through Talk Talk’s whole career, but at Spirit Of Eden it becomes overriding and imperative, informing the structure, tone and delivery of the music as much as the mere words. Guitars and harmonica strike at times with Old Testament vengefulness only for piano, violin and the seemingly constant, mellifluous organ to ebb, sooth, redeem, balm. And all the while Hollis’ uniquely plaintive voice delivers lyrics which are simultaneously oblique and personal, his muffled enunciation disguising the precision of the words if not their meaning, from barely audible exhortations to “rage on omnipotent” to passages of indecipherable profundity; “nature’s son / don’t you know how life goes on? / desperately befriending the crowd / to incessantly drive on / dress in gold’s surrendering gown.” The particulars of the faith presented here are only to be guessed at; his lyrics invoke recurrent holistic paradigms of spring/nature, the innate wisdom/purity of children, pleas for a sacred faith and understanding in the face of the spiritual fault lines of our nation and world, meanings both obscured and accentuated by his delivery. By “New Grass” on Laughing Stock he will confess explicitly to being “versed in Christ should strength desert me,” but for the duration of Spirit Of Eden the source of his faith and spirituality remain unclear even if the power of the devotional does not.
Hollis has denied that he is a “born-again Christian”, and pleaded ignorance of the similarly English Christian mysticism of William Blake. His philosophy, he says, is “humanitarian”. Does he believe in God, or does he merely want to believe; is Spirit Of Eden an expression of faith or an expression of the desire for faith? His renowned reticence and reserved nature mean that discussions of intentions and meanings in Talk Talk’s music are few and far between, the music being left to speak for itself, making separation of the artist and the art a difficult task. His art is as much perspiration and fastidious exactitude as it is divine inspiration or revelatory genius, probably more so; the effort behind this work is human, not divine, and credit should not be tithed to a higher power. As Hollis himself intones during Inheritance, we are guilty of “burying progress in the clouds.” He is after all only a man, as given to stealing song-titles from Brian Wilson and Arthur Lee as anyone else, however astonishing his records may be. The dichotomy of struggle and confusion between faith in God and faith in man is fascinating and crucial.
The notion of originality has been refuted by Hollis, who believes all music to be essentially derivative. The way to achieve innovation, to create something original, he says, is to take things from as wide and varied a scheme of influences as possible. The list of names checked as sources for the creation of Spirit Of Eden is wide and diverse; Can, Miles Davis, Debussy, Satie, Delius, Coltrane, Roland Kirk, John Lee Hooker. It was the punk insurgency of late 70s London that inspired him to pick up a guitar and cemented in his ideology the need for ‘feel’ over technique. He is almost militant about how music should be listened to, an advocate of intense engagement and undivided attention. Despite aesthetic similarities, I imagine he has little theoretical common ground with Eno. Spirit Of Eden is intended to be listened to late at night in darkened rooms, focused and free of distractions. Every note and beat is in place for a reason, every texture mulled over and deliberate. At one point Hollis and Friese-Green recorded a 25-piece choir, only to delete their contribution the next day because it was “too perfect.” The imperfections and flaws beget the power of the record, reflecting and refracting the fallibility and frailty of the mortal creator. The juxtaposition of the unsound and the magnificent reminds us of our own flaws, of our ego and insignificance; it is this almost unconscious recognition, this profound truth within the music that charges me with feeling.
The eddies of influence flow outwards in concentric circles from Spirit Of Eden, artists at different compass points echoing its ripples, unknowingly swept in its tides. The overt appropriation of aesthetic by Bark Psychosis. Jason Pierce’s godless drone and surge. A learning curve abided by Radiohead. Sigur Ros; Elbow; Ride; all and more in thrall. But Spirit Of Eden itself is oblivious, standing outside of time and consideration, a deeply personal music made for deeply personal reasons, not to influence few but to satisfy one. Enduring a great burden of coercive influence from EMI, Mark Hollis consented to allow them to edit “I Believe In You” for radio. A mistake. Distraught and prostituted; perhaps the record’s most transcendent moment shorn of context and arc; Hollis despaired, protective of his creation, his expression, a part of himself. Within the framework of the album, “I Believe In You” is an instant of sublime; wraiths of guitar, gentle folds of piano, a click and thump of drums as herald for an anguished cry; “I just can’t bring myself to see it starting”. The magnetic, liquid groove, observance of a broken world, the sea of organs, a curtain of sound and... a chorus, angels, light... a dream of noise...
“Create upon my breath / create reflection on my flesh / the wealth of love... / take my freedom...” “Wealth” is the album’s final and most explicitly devout movement, an overt and honest supplication. A caress of organ, a fractured, delicate brush of acoustic guitar. Pace, as throughout the record, is key; the slower the motion the more important the progression, a momentum of spirit. “Wealth” is a lingering plea for gospel, a bargaining with God; “take my freedom for giving me a sacred love.” In my eyes it is an admission of man’s inability to guide his destiny, a divulgence of impotence and a desperate appeal for fate in the face of free will. It is recognition and refutation of our solitude in the absence of God. If we pray hard enough and long enough and pure enough, perhaps we can create God, make God hear us, love us, and bless us with salvation. It is a weak but gracious yearning, futile and human.
These are just my thoughts as I stand now. My love affair with this beautiful and vatic record is fresh, and like all youthful suitors I will tend to idolise and revere the object of my passion, to read too much into its gestures and motions, to ignore the world outside for a while; and yet I know that there are still many things to be found within the minutes of this record, in its antecedents and heirs, its sources and resonances. I am barely yet acquainted with Laughing Stock. To steal for a moment; the rigorous succession of circumstances. This table, this bubble of light humming with music. This is where I start.