Scot and Jeff talk to Ezekiel Kweku about Talk Talk.
Introducing the Band
Your hosts Scot Bertram (@ScotBertram) and Jeff Blehar (@EsotericCD) with guest Ezekiel Kweku, politics editor at New York magazine. Follow Ezekiel on Twitter at @TheShrillest, and read his work here.
Ezekiel’s Music Pick: Talk Talk
What if one of the most important, most rewarding bands of the 1980s was a band you had most likely never heard of, or knew only as a one-hit wonder? The gang argues this week for the genius of Talk Talk, which many (if not most) listeners know, if at all, from a No Doubt cover song. But while Scot is new to them, Ezekiel and Jeff are hardcore fans and will argue that this band — widely acknowledged by musicians and critics as one of the most influential of its era, in the long run — are one of the finest, most moving and transcendent, groups of their era or any era for that matter. Beginning as catchy UK synth-pop and ending as one of the most profoundly unique progenitors of post-rock, Talk Talk followed a singular evolution that makes them one of the most fascinating bands of the decade. From The Party’s Over in 1982 all the way to Laughing Stock in 1991 (or Mark Hollis in 1998), Talk Talk worked its way from worldwide popularity to intensely beloved insular niche jazz-art-rock, with every step along the way perfectly understandable in light of the prior one.
Ezekiel argues, intriguingly, that Talk Talk isn’t necessarily a band for everyone; he doesn’t mean that in the condescending hipster sense, rather in the sense that their music begins in one niche genre (early ’80s New Romantic/postpunk synthpop) and ends in another (early ’90s visionary jazzy post-rock), so it isn’t exactly Top 40 hit material. But Jeff, ever-voluble proselytizer that he always is, disagrees: this music should be for everyone, he thinks, and if he can introduce just one more person to The Colour Of Spring or Spirit Of Eden, then he’s done God’s good work. Jeff also notes that Ezekiel (who has a background as a DJ) made a fantastic, beautifully sequenced mix of artists influenced by (or influencing) Talk Talk called “Watershed,” and we recommend it heartily to you.
All You Do to Me is Talk Talk: the Synth-pop Years
Talk Talk began life as a synth-pop band springing out of the same ’80s UK ‘New Romantic’ scene that spawned Flock Of Seagulls, Culture Club, and Duran Duran…but right from the jump there was something ineffably different about them. Maybe it was the songcraft, which was a well-considered cut above the rest of their peers despite the occasionally dated synth line on their earlier records. Maybe it was lead singer/songwriter Mark Hollis’ remarkably breathy vocal approach: a man who sounded for all the world like he was inhaling his own life essence every time he sang a note. Or maybe it was just the fact that they were one of the rare groups (in the USA, at least) score the legendary ‘trifecta’: a hit single/album/band all sharing the same name. (As Jeff authoritatively announces: “‘Talk Talk!’ Off the album Talk Talk! By the band Talk Talk!”)
But while the gang agrees that The Party’s Over (1982) is merely adequate as a debut — halting, a bit chintzy, and dated aside from the still-memorable hit single “Talk Talk” and “Today” — they also agree that its follow-up It’s My Life (1984) is a major leap forward. Unless you, intrepid listener, are a big post-rock/art-rock fan, you know Talk Talk primarily through No Doubt’s cover of their hit “It’s My Life” (which Ezekiel still rates as one of their best songs), but the ominously nagging “Dum Dum Girl” and “Tomorrow Started” (where Jeff notes the ‘hook’ is merely a two-note guitar, oscillating up and down) are every bit as good. And “Renee” is, as Ezekiel points out, the first moment where Mark Hollis embraces the idea of ‘space’ and quietness within his productions.
Chameleon Day: Talk Talk Discovers the Colour of Spring
One thesis that both Jeff and Ezekiel are at pains to emphasize during this episode is just how smoothly natural (even telegraphed) Talk Talk’s evolution from album to album was, no matter how radical those shifts must have seemed at the time. In retrospect, you can clearly hear the seeds of what was to come embedded within the songs on It’s My Life. Still, it’s hard to overemphasize what a massive leap forward The Colour Of Spring (1986) was — a masterpiece of the decade, an album that all three of the gang emphatically agree on, and to this day an album Jeff has been known to thrust upon unsuspecting strangers with a creepily zealous gleam in his eye. Ezekiel starts by noting that the opening seconds of the first song, “Happiness Is Easy” are the moment where listening chronologically through Talk Talk’s discography pays off: suddenly they are breathtakingly organic, acoustic, and touchingly original (the purity of slightly out-of-key children’s choir in the chorus slays Jeff every time). Scot is bowled over by the painstakingly methodical unfurling of “I Don’t Believe In You.” “Life’s What You Make It” was a hit single written to order, proving (as Ezekiel speculates) to Mark Hollis that he could do it if he wanted. And “Time It’s Time,” which closes the album on a storm of keyboards, harmonica, church choir, and *children’s recorder*, may just be Talk Talk’s single most transcendent moment — at least within the bounds of standard song format. The Colour Of Spring sold two million copies worldwide and was Talk Talk’s biggest commercial hit, and yet few today are familiar with it in the way they should be. We plead with you: buy this album.
The Rainbow: Spirit Of Eden
Spirit Of Eden (1988) is an album that the gang spends several minutes discussing and trying to describe, but honestly, it describes itself more eloquently than any them can properly muster. A massive left-turn (even though, again, the turn was telegraphed by songs like “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day”) from the commercially potent fusion of art-rock and pop of The Colour Of Spring, Eden was essentially a six-song suite fusing rock with neo-classical, jazz, and post-rock conceits into one preternaturally organic whole. There are songs here, to be sure, and lush melodies and constructions to marvel in, but you will spend days with this record until you realize, for example, where “The Rainbow” (Scot’s favorite) end and “Eden” begins, or where “Eden” ends and the cold-hot explosion of “Desire” begins. (Tellingly, on the original vinyl release all three songs were tracked as one unbanded whole on Side A.)
After the Flood; Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis
For those who thought Spirit Of Eden was just a bit too beholden to pop/rock commercialism, Talk Talk presents their swan-song Laughing Stock (1991): a six song record that has completely slipped the surly bonds of formal song-structure, a series of lengthy sonic collages assembled via post-production into “tracks.” This is one of the most beloved and influential albums of the last thirty years among tastemakers, critics, and (most importantly) musicians…but it is it for everyone? Jeff for one is not so sure; despite loving this sort of music on general principle, he finds it to be more unfocused and discursive than Spirit Of Eden, with two key exceptions that the rest of the gang also agree upon: the hypnotic churn of “After The Flood” and the wind-in-the-willows breeze of “New Grass.”
Mark Hollis (1998), delivered years after Talk Talk had been formally dissolved and almost as if by surprise, is the sound of Mark Hollis almost consciously trying to fade away, and daring you to follow along (Ezekiel: “if you put it on in the background, you can easily forget it’s playing”). None of which should be taken as criticism.
Ezekiel, Scot and Jeff each name their two key albums and five key songs by Talk Talk.