AT THE SIX-MINUTE mark of Talk Talk’s “Ascension Day,” the music suddenly stops. The song spends its duration retreating until it suddenly threatens to explode, and, in its final minute of swirling distorted guitars and asymmetrical drum thrashes, it almost does. Just as the music inches toward apocalyptic chaos, however, it cuts out entirely, and “Ascension Day” is over. It would be a jarring moment in any context, but on an album as dynamic and patient as its parent record, 1991’s “Laughing Stock,” it feels like unplugging life support. Yet it is only one effective musical decision in a career full of them; frontman and creative visionary Mark Hollis, who passed away last month at 64, had a way of employing space and silence that I have never heard replicated.
Hollis once said, “To me the ultimate ambition is to make music that doesn’t have a use by date, that goes beyond your own time.” Anyone who listens to Hollis’ final few albums will notice that they sound nothing like anything else from the ’80s and ’90s, but they also never sound like a band aiming to make something “experimental” for the time. Instead, Hollis’ ambitions lay in replicating the patterns and cycles of life as he saw it, creating music that breathed and swelled and melted with no concern for conventional notions of time.
His career arc felt that way too, if not fading out slightly more linearly. Talk Talk arrived in the early ’80s as a synthpop group in the vein of Duran Duran and Tears for Fears; they released two solid but unmemorable albums in that style, although the latter produced the unimpeachable classic “It’s My Life.” With their third album,“The Colour of Spring,” Hollis began steering his band toward more contemplative and naturalistic places, experimenting with acoustic instrumentation and less hurried song structures. While lovely, “Colour” feels retrospectively like a dry run for the monolithic ambitions Hollis would realize on Talk Talk’s next album, “Spirit of Eden.”
An abstract patchwork influenced by jazz and minimalism, “Spirit of Eden” nonetheless sounds like nothing made before it. The band meticulously splatters Hollis’ slow songs with organic textures, allowing the compositions to dissipate and release when they need to. Even when Talk Talk roars into a brash, bluesy chorus — as they do on “Desire” — it is in service of catharsis enhanced by pillows of silence and stillness.
Talk Talk would follow this brittle epic with “Laughing Stock,” a logical expansion, and arguably an improvement, on the sound of “Spirit.” The album took a year of painstaking arranging, recording, splicing and scrapping to produce, and this is reflected in its scope. It features choirs, classical instrumentation and jackhammer guitar feedback, all meticulously employed in service of seemingly effortless beauty.
Following the release of “Laughing Stock,” Hollis disbanded Talk Talk and temporarily stepped away from the music business. He would return for one last muted gasp in the form of his 1998 self-titled solo album, a work that takes Talk Talk’s quietude and intimacy to a new extreme. “Mark Hollis,” while nominally an outlier in the man’s discography, still feels perfectly suited as both an eponymous effort and his final recorded work. It is the apotheosis of his experiments with silence and minimalism, its widescreen emotional scope handled with a featherlight touch.
After this sigh of an album, Hollis took a logical and well-deserved step into the darkness, retreating from music and the public eye for good. While Hollis’ music has become highly influential and rightly acclaimed in recent years, perhaps one of its most compelling attributes is its aforementioned disdain for anyone else’s demands but his own. His work is singular but universal, feeling untethered to constraints of genre and structure in favor of his own masterful artistic impulses. This could be said of any experimental musician, but Hollis is unique in the way his life mirrored the flow of his art; he tapped into a vein of creativity never since attempted and walked away when he felt he had said all he needed to.