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BBC – Music – Review of Talk Talk

Written by on October 18, 2020

Buried deep in the glitzy narratives of 1980s pop lies the gentler, stranger story of Talk Talk.

Led by Mark Hollis, the group began the decade as a synth-pop stadium prospect. The theory goes that then they took a quieter, more ambient route, spurred by 1988’s astonishing fourth LP, Spirit of Eden.

In recent years, the likes of Graham Coxon, Wild Beasts and The Maccabees have held up Spirit of Eden like a totemic text; at the time, Record Mirror’s Mark Hooper called it “the kind of record which encourages marketing men to commit suicide”.

Twenty-three years on, Hollis now returns with Natural Order, his “companion piece” to 1990’s million-selling Natural History best-of. He oversaw the track choices, the order, the mastering and the artwork.

For fans, this reappearance will be like the second coming – but that wouldn’t impress the man himself, who told The Wire in 1998 that he never enjoyed the “f***ing glorification”.

Natural Order runs chronologically, from 1982’s Have You Heard the News to 1991’s Taphead, taking us through a dream-world of B sides and album tracks. And what an astonishingly intimate, humane and honest place it out turns to be, revealing that this woozier, weirder side of Talk Talk was ever-present.

Hollis’ uncompromising voice still strikes first, like hot steel. Stylised and nasal, it should distance the listener, but it acts upon the senses like a magnet, eerily drawing the ear in.

The music surrounding it should also sound oddly tasteful. Period electronic-drums and polite, minor-key chord changes are everywhere – but they come together to make something more spiritual, more spectral, more meaningful.

Natural Order also plays like a latter-day prog record, really, although it doesn’t exist completely outside its era. Echoes of early Tears for Fears emerge in slow, stunning epics like April 5th. Ghosts of Joy Division’s Closer – sparse sounds and dramatic silences – lurk in For What It’s Worth. And John Cope has a melodic structure that late-1980s R.E.M. would have loved to fit on darker moments of Document or Green.

Hollis’ lyrics are peculiar and abstract, often about seasons, darkness and changes. He uses them like a painter’s colour-washes rather than storytelling tools. They add even more texture to Talk Talk’s challenging work; but this is work that sinks in so easily, that sticks under the skin.

If magic in music exists, it is here, and never-ending.

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