“Something awful has happened; something terrible. Something worse, even, than the fall of man. For in that greatest of all tragedies, we merely lost Paradise—and with it, everything that made life worth living. What has happened since is unthinkable: we’ve gotten used to it”.
—John Eldredge, The Journey of Desire
Mark Hollis bears a striking resemblance to the mosaic visage of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in Ravenna, whose arched eyebrows and stern face were set upon establishing a new code of law. After three successive (and successful) forays in the realm of early ‘80s new romantic synth-pop, Hollis and Talk Talk producer Tim Friese-Greene entered a musical cocoon—an abandoned church building in England—to reinvent the band and explore brave, new sounds. When Spirit of Eden slid from its chrysalis in 1988 it took the collective breath away from critics worldwide, and drew down the ire of Talk Talk’s label. The highly non-commercial nature of the album resulted the band’s dismissal from EMI, a company whose artistic straight-jacket is more confining than the BBC’s. Notwithstanding, Talk Talk—yes, the same group who were once the airbrushed acolytes of Duran Duran—floated away with what is arguably one of greatest achievements in popular recorded music. Mark Hollis made an album for the ages and, unlike many of his classical predecessors, has lived to see it appreciated.
When most people enjoy a record, they generally speak of the music’s vibe. It makes them feel good for no specific reason; it provides a pleasurable escape from the agitations of life. But sample the reactions of those who have listened to Spirit of Eden, and it’s immediately apparent that this record draws out the most private emotions. On Amazon.com the listener reviews include the following observations:
“It’s the kind of music that makes you want to cry or write poetry”.
“It will cleanse you”.
“I don’t even need to play it anymore; it’s taken up permanent residence within”.
“. . . [it] caused me to ache, to sit still engrossed”.
“You can feel the surrender of a man”.
“If my house was on fire and I could save only one object, it would be this CD”.
“Take my freedom, for giving me this sacred album”.
“I played this album at my son’s birth”.
What’s going on here? Why would Spirit of Eden become a person’s most prized possession, an object that would be invited into the most intimate moments? It is one of those rare works that causes the listener to get in touch with the inner self—safely. It drags us by the ear to regions of the heart we would not voluntarily visit on our own. Spirit of Eden has been labeled prog, ambient, experimental; I prefer to see it as a soundtrack. As such, it suits those quiet moments when, deprived of all the devices and distractions we fill our lives with, we come precariously close to the sickening feelings of our ontological lightness. When life begins to lose its artificial meaning and contrived purpose, when we feel our complete aloneness and despair, when we realize something dear is lost, that’s when a record like Spirit of Eden speaks to the soul and says, “the fear is excruciating, but that is where your deliverance lies”.
Spirit of Eden was fueled by Hollis’ own life and death struggle. Having been addicted to heroin, he arrived at the conclusion that this prop, too, had to be kicked away. The terror of letting go of the one thing that gave a false sense of control inspired the cavernous sound of the record, and within those echoing canyons Hollis pushed through to resolution.
“Take my freedom, for giving me a sacred love”. (“Wealth”)
Ditching the taut tones of Casio keyboards, Talk Talk utilized a wholly organic sound for Spirit of Eden: real drums and real guitars augmented by harrowing improvisations on woodwinds and brass. Sustained, irregular piano chords announce thematic changes while swells from a church organ cause the record to draw deep, labored breaths. The falling and rising of the music, from thick silence to cacophony, is the main characteristic of this album. Techno? New romantic? MTV? Although this music has no direct antecedents, as a matter of reference it feels like Thelonious Monk, Dmitri Shostokovich, and Iron Butterfly meshed together. Yet, there is a timeless if not ancient character to the sounds that reaches across varied traditions. The tracks sprawl to an average length of nearly seven minutes. The lyrics are appropriately cryptic and non-specific. Spirit of Eden bypasses the head and sets a mood directly for the heart.
I was impressed by the fact that one amazon.com contributor played this album at his son’s birth. I recently had a very different but no less dramatic association with this music. About a month ago I received a phone call at work. My wife’s voice on the other end was gripped with terror and grief. Her brother had been in a serious fall, which fractured his skull. Shortly after being admitted to the hospital he went into cardiac arrest and had no heartbeat for about three minutes. The doctors feared the loss of oxygen had caused substantial brain damage. Within a few days his vital organs began to shut down, and the family was called in to expect the worst.
The day he was expected to die, the intensive care unit was filled with a procession of people, most of them young, most of whom I didn’t know, coming to tell this young man goodbye. While the sound of life support machines droned in the background, one by one these grieving people made their approach to his bedside, trembling, eyes and noses red, some of them clutching at their sides as if to hold themselves together. I remembered reading an Irish mystic, J.B. Stoney, who had said that there was nothing more dignified than the solitude of grief. Many were there, but each was alone with his or her own inexplicable feelings. As I watched, it struck me that the song “I Believe in You” was playing in my mind.
“On a street so young laying wasted
Enough ain’t it enough
I just can’t bring myself to see it starting….”
It was the song on Spirit of Eden that signified Hollis surrendering his control through addiction, allowing himself to fall into the hands of raging omnipotence. I thought it strange that, out of the hundreds of songs and hymns I know, this particular piece by a distant British rock band would rear up in my mind. But as the people around me quietly wept, I could hear the sound of Tim Friese-Greene’s church organ and the Chelmsford Boys Choir building inside.
“It’s taken up permanent residence within”.
Those voices resonating within me were like a comforting, heavenly choir. For a moment I had new eyes to see something most precious. These people were silently acknowledging that death is not what should have been, that no matter how we try to kill the desire, there is a demand for something eternal that only moments of loss such as this can stir. These were people jarred from the numbness of routine, becoming human again.
Spirit of Eden is a record that cuts to the marrow, challenging our resigned contentment with the way things are. It’s a spirit that slides under the gates of time and genre, reaching up to haunt us out of a stupor. Like any great art, it defies analysis and can only be experienced at the most individual level.
Heaven bless you, Mark Hollis.
// Notes from the Road
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