The great singer/songwriter Mark Hollis of the English group Talk Talk reportedly has passed away at age 64, and for people of a certain disposition, his death is as much of a gut-punch as were the losses of David Bowie and Prince.
Hollis possessed one of the most moving, soulful voices in '80s synth-pop during Talk Talk's era of commercial success with hits such as "It's My Life," "Life's What You Make of It," "Such a Shame," and "Talk Talk." He channeled Bryan Ferry's plummy, tremulous expressiveness into a more aggressive delivery on 1982's The Party's Over and 1984's It's My Life. With 1986's The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk took a more serious, contemplative turn, but the instrumentation still maintained the textures and dynamics of pop.
However, with 1988's Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk reinvented themselves as a vehicle for rock as a form of holy minimalism, an evocation of pastoralism within the grandeur of a cathedral. The music's sporadic yet intense swells packed an emotional wallop, rising as they did from the compositions' dominant, hushed nature. (Read Charles Mudede's meditation of "I Believe in You" here. If there's a heaven, this song surely is playing as you ascend there.)
Hollis and band mates Paul Webb and Lee Harris (aided considerably by producer Tim Friese-Greene) further honed the process with 1991's Laughing Stock, which proved to be the band's ultimate statement, a singular fusion of modal jazz and stark, transcendent folk. Talk Talk had engineered a radical metamorphosis akin to that made by Scott Walker: Both artists shifted from consistent hit-making to deeply introspective and spiritual songwriting and soundscaping that encompassed the cerebral and the visceral. And both harbored a monastic disdain for the trappings of music-biz success.
Talk Talk's transformation from new-wave chart-dwellers and MTV favorites to transcendental questers and cult figures resulted in them being worshiped with a devotion of utmost gravity by heads who had, say, a predilection for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Miles Davis's In a Silent Way. It testified to Hollis's integrity, his refusal merely to repeat a "winning" formula. In the eternal battle of commerce versus art, he sided conclusively with the latter, inspiring thousands of discerning experimental-music and post-rock aficionados rather than pleasing millions of casual music consumers.
Even though Hollis had pretty much vanished from the music scene after his spare, ballad-heavy 1998 solo album, he and Talk Talk continued to influence a new generation of adventurous musicians, and their cult continued to accrue disciples. His last three recordings in particular are built to last—and to console. They're perfect records to play first thing in the morning or last thing at night. It's going to take a long time to process Hollis's loss.