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‘Spirit Of Eden’: The Story Behind Talk Talk’s Elusive Masterpiece
In Depth

‘Spirit Of Eden’: The Story Behind Talk Talk’s Elusive Masterpiece

One of modern music’s few truly original albums, the influence of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’ reaches far beyond fad and fashion.

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It’s fair to say Talk Talk’s fourth album, Spirit Of Eden, was one of the most intensely anticipated releases of 1988. Its predecessor, the sublime, two-million-selling The Colour Of Spring, had established the band as mainstream contenders who seemingly prioritised both artistic growth and commercial success, so the group’s record label, EMI, believed the only way was up from thereon in. Accordingly, Talk Talk were allowed full artistic control over their next record, as all around them were confident that the Mark Hollis-fronted outfit would again deliver.

Listen to ‘Spirit Of Eden’ here.

The backstory: “They didn’t know how to sell it”

Famously, EMI were aghast when Spirit Of Eden finally landed, following protracted studio sessions which lasted from May 1987 to March 1988. In public, both band and label put on a united front – in a contemporary interview with Q magazine, EMI’s then general manager, Tony Wadsworth, suggested the record was “like a cross between classical music and jazz with a modern perspective… I think it’ll be well received” – but behind the scenes, Spirit Of Eden’s contents induced something close to panic.

“There was real nervousness and misunderstanding about that record,” EMI’s Director Of Repertoire Nigel Reeve told The Guardian retrospectively in 2012. “Nobody got it. There wasn’t a hit single and they didn’t know how to sell it. It caused problems.”

With hindsight, Talk Talk hadn’t intended to create such apoplexy. The situation had only transpired because their single-minded frontman, Mark Hollis, was determined Spirit Of Eden should reflect his band’s continual evolution. Indeed, the interviews he undertook to promote the record bullishly reinforced that standpoint.

“It’s certainly a reaction to the music that’s around at the moment, ‘cos most of that is shit,” Hollis told Q in October 1988. “It’s only radical in the modern context. It’s not radical compared to what was happening 20 years ago. If we’d have delivered this album to the record company 20 years ago, they wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.”

In retrospect, Hollis had long been dropping hints that Talk Talk were about to embrace a more experimental approach. He had enthusiastically praised some of music history’s best jazz musicians, Miles Davis among them, along with genre-fusing Hungarian composer Béla Bartók in interviews dating back to the group’s The Colour Of Spring era, and these pioneering, free-thinking artists inspired Hollis and his team to encompass a much broader palette of sounds, ensuring Spirit Of Eden could push way beyond the traditional confines of pop.

The recording: “It was often 12 hours a day with the studio in darkness”

To realise his aim, Hollis expanded Talk Talk’s nucleus – traditionally himself, plus co-producer/composer and multi-instrumentalist Tim Friese-Greene, bassist Paul Webb and drummer Lee Harris – for the duration of the Spirit Of Eden recording sessions. At different times, the core group was augmented by seasoned sessioneers such as percussionist Martin Ditcham, Pretenders guitarist Robbie McIntosh and harmonica player Mark Feltham (all of whom had augmented The Colour Of Spring), along with a variety of additional musicians supplying strings and brass textures.

Accordingly, the Spirit Of Eden sessions felt closer in spirit to jazz than rock or pop. Hollis and Friese-Greene later painstakingly edited the record’s six finished tracks down from much longer improvisational performances, while the venue – Wessex Sound Studios, a converted Victorian-era church in North London – was often set in total darkness, in order to add to the ambience.

“Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense,” studio engineer Phill Brown later told The Guardian. “There was very little communication with musicians who came in to play. They were led to a studio in darkness and a track would be played down the headphones.”

Percussionist Martin Ditcham also detailed the sessions in the book Spirit Of Talk Talk, by James Marsh, Chris Roberts and Toby Benjamin. “Although Wessex was a church, the studio was a large soundproofed room built within it, so it wasn’t unlike a lot of studios of that size at the time,” he said. “The space wasn’t particularly special, but Phill’s knowledge of mic placement, along with the space available to him, made the recordings that much more special.

“The lighting was unique,” Ditcham added. “Lee [Harris] had a set of three ancient disco lights set up in front of the drum kit, triggered to go on and off in various sequences as he played. There was a white bucket, containing a strobe or some sort of spinning light, placed in the main studio area. In the control room, aimed between the speakers, there was a projector with slowly turning, oil-filled slides creating constantly moving coloured patterns, psychedelic 60s style. All in all, an ambience unlike any I’d experienced in a studio before.”

The music: “Everything is real, everything is played by people”

The music that emerged from the Spirit Of Eden sessions was equally otherworldly: taking everything from the lugubrious, proto-post-rock soundscapes of The Rainbow to the jazzy diffidence of Inheritance in their stride, the album’s six songs were rarely less than spellbinding. And though Spirit Of Eden wasn’t always quite as bucolic as some critics have since stated (the intensive sonic squall at the heart of Desire, for example, anticipates the coming of prog-metal fusionists such as Porcupine Tree), it is entirely possible that its glorious, hymnal closing track, Wealth, remains the most beautiful piece of music Talk Talk ever committed to tape.

Taken as a whole, Spirit Of Eden was – and remains – one of the most original and fearless records created under the aegis of modern pop. But then, as Mark Hollis later took pains to point out, the album’s timelessness derived from the band’s organic approach and his own inherent distrust of synthesisers, samplers and digital studio technology in general.

“Everything is real, everything is played by people,” Hollis emphasised in an interview with International Musician & Recording World in November 1988. “The only thing we’ve used digital for is to take one bit of a performance from one place and move it to another… I think the most important thing in music is the way it’s played… Unless things are played with feeling and heart, they’re not worth anything.”

The release and legacy: “Mind-blowingly brilliant in its diversity, minimalism, atmospherics, musicianship”

Despite EMI’s initial misgivings, Spirit Of Eden was quickly embraced by discerning music fans and critics alike. Following its release, on 12 September 1988, the album was greeted by a decent showing of positive reviews. Typical of many, Q declared, “It has a range, ambition and self-sufficiency that enables Hollis and co to step out of time and into their own,” before concluding that Spirit Of Eden was “a brave record that is not afraid to follow its own muse and damn the consequences”.

The album’s lone single release – an edited version of its most traditionally structured song, I Believe In You – wasn’t a hit, yet Spirit Of Eden nonetheless rose to No.19 in the UK charts and later received a silver certification. Not such a bad return for a record Uncut once declared to be “a commercially suicidal foray”.

Ultimately, though, Spirit Of Eden has recouped richly in terms of its influence on successive generations of musicians. With Mark Hollis having absolutely no intention of touring it (“To play it live, to take a part that was done in spontaneity, to write it down and get someone to play it, would lose the whole point, lose the whole purity of what it was in the first place,” he told Melody Maker), the album was effectively left to its own devices.

As a result, discerning music fans have willingly accepted Spirit Of Eden as it has presented itself. Often drawn in by an exquisite cover image depicting a tree festooned with birds, seashells and snails, designed by the band’s longtime artistic collaborator, James Marsh, new disciples are still finding themselves smitten by the elusive beauty of the music within.

“This has to be one of my all-time favourite albums,” Alan Wilder, former Depeche Mode keyboardist and compiler of the Talk Talk tribute album, Spirit Of Talk Talk, told The Quietus in 2011. “Mind-blowingly brilliant in its diversity, minimalism, atmospherics, musicianship,” he continued, “and topped off with the voice which found its true position floating painfully over the top (in the best possible way). Whenever I’m stumped for something to listen to, I reach for this album to restore my faith in all that is good about modern music. It encompasses so many of the things I enjoy about sound, postmodernity, sophisticated arrangements, eclectic and unusual songs. Frankly, I’m jealous that I have never been able to make a record which has the confidence to be so exposed.”

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