Still affected by the death of Talk Talk’s Mark Hollis, Getintothis’ Gary Aster looks back at his unique and peerless album, Spirit of Eden.
It has been observed that Talk Talk’s career reversed the normal direction of travel in the music industry, progressing from the respectably commercial (if unremarkable) sound of their earlier releases towards the experimental, avant garde sound of this very special album.
Its predecessor, The Colour of Spring, offered gentle hints of a new way forward on a handful of tracks but was still very much a commercial pop album with sales in excess of four million copies.
When Spirit of Eden emerged two years later however, it was something of a bridge too far for much of the band’s existing fan base and sales were significantly down. Soon after, the band left EMI in acrimony, with the label disappointed that it would not see much of a return on the sizable budget allocated for its recording.
It’s often referred to as a critic’s favourite, but this is misleading since most reviews on its release were, at best, lukewarm whilst others castigated the band for making a willfully uncommercial record.
Yet since then its reputation has grown considerably, with some now openly calling it a classic. Unsure what to do with it at the time however, and lacking any obvious hit singles, EMI were reduced to promoting it as “an album for 1988”.
Even this is wide of the mark – the record sounds almost completely unlike anything else released that year.
It’s a curiously difficult record to define and categorise, and refuses to be neatly pigeon-holed. There are elements of folk, jazz, ambient and what would later be described as post-rock all breaking the surface at different points.
Above all, it’s very much a studio album – a collage of sounds painstakingly pieced together over many long months by the band’s chief song-writer Mark Hollis and his co-producer Tim Friese-Green.
Together, they called on the services of a multitude of accomplished and renowned classical and session musicians who were asked to improvise with minimal instructions or direction, accompanying the merest hint of a backing track or musical motif.
These lengthy jams would then be sifted and filtered by the pair, in search of just the right sustained note or fragment for a particular moment.
Tales from the recording sessions of Spirit of Eden abound and go some way towards explaining their remarkable results. The shifting cast of musicians frequently recorded as a live ensemble in near darkness illuminated only by strobe lights or psychedelic oil lamp projectors.
Contributors were invited to drift in and out of long, often aimless improvisations, whilst Hollis or Friese-Green conducted proceedings, directing the dynamics from hushed, sedate ambience to sudden rock wig-outs, as evidenced on Desire.
Eschewing the close microphone recording methods of most of their contemporaries, the band opted instead for a wide and spacious sound, but one that was unafraid to allow the music to disintegrate into repeated moments of near silence.
CD copies of the album contain a forced 30 seconds of silence to separate sides one and two of the vinyl pressings. This effectively splits the record into two separate suites of continuous music as each track slides gently into the next almost imperceptibly.
The album begins slowly with three minutes of atmospheric muted trumpet, sustained strings and the unearthly sounds of Hugh Davies’ self-built ‘shozygs’, an electronic device not unlike a theremin but housed inside old encyclopaedias.
Mark Hollis had long been telling anyone who’d listen of the importance of composers like Delius and Satie, as well as modal jazz on Talk Talk’s music, but these influences were far from obvious on the band’s previous offerings.
Here however, it was clear that this wasn’t mere pretentious name-checking on Hollis’s part.
When album opener The Rainbow finally breaks free of its ambient intro, Hollis’s piano is reminiscent of pianist Gil Evans’ tastefully minmalist playing on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
And Hollis’s vocals commence with, for this writer, one of the most arresting opening lyrics of any album – “the world’s turned upside down” – a sentiment with which the band’s established fan-base could hardly disagree.
The track continues to build unhurriedly with the addition of a slow, hypnotic rhythm section, subtly underplayed guitar and feedback-harmonica that punctuates the verses with unexpected eruptions of sound.
Hollis’s often indistinct voice functions here more like an additional instrument than a regular lead vocal and, at times, is somewhat reminiscent of John Martyn’s singing on Solid Air.
This is especially apparent on Inheritance, which also features guest musician Danny Thompson, whose double bass playing was, of course, such a vital part of the overall sound of Solid Air.
Contemporary English folk influences don’t end there, with some critics making the unsubstantiated suggestion that the song’s lyrics refer to Nick Drake. Less ambiguously, I Believe in You is almost certainly addressed to Hollis’ brother, who died shortly after Spirit of Eden’s completion, and details his struggles with heroin addiction.
Much of the mood then is melancholy but there is hope here too. Although Hollis was not a religious believer, spiritual themes and Biblical references recur.
The materialistic excesses of Thatcher’s ‘80s are condemned with an almost Blakean religious ire. On I Believe in You, a choral section re-purposed from Sibelius’s Sixth Symphony and sung beautifully by the Choir of Chelmsford Cathedral. This lends real poignancy to Hollis’s humanist sermonising.
The album was recorded in a rural setting and Hollis had recently retreated with his family from urban living to a farm in Sussex with some 18 animals. This also informs much of the finished record’s unique sounds and atmospheres.
The natural world is celebrated in the lyrics (and the album’s memorable sleeve art) where it represents a sort of salvation from the harsh economics and monetarism of the 1980s, a theme that is especially apparent on the album’s closer Wealth.
For a band initially bracketed with early 80s synth pop, there is a striking lack of synthesized or electrical sounds on Spirit of Eden.
The band’s newfound preference for working with acoustic instruments was later explained by Hollis as a means to achieve a more “timeless” sound. “These instruments”, he pointed out, “by virtue of the fact that they’ve already existed for hundreds of years…can’t date.”
Listening back to the album over 30 years later one would have to say that Hollis and co successfully achieved this timeless quality, and it continues to find new admirers to this day. It is a genuinely ground-breaking album, recorded by very accomplished or classically trained musicians and assembled by a careful, painstaking process over many months.
It possesses a beautiful quality absent from most contemporary music. If you’ve never heard it before then that is a state of affairs that you should rectify as soon as possible.