Talk Talk – The Colour of Spring

The most important thing you can work with is silence… I’ve always believed that one note is better than two, two notes are better than three, so it’s never hard to choose because you’re looking for very small fragments.

Mark Hollis – Vox, November 1991

First, let’s get this out of the way: I speak about very few albums as being perfect. From the beginning to the very last song, creating an album as good as The Colour of Spring is a one in a million accomplishment. This album is a masterpiece from every angle: the production, the musicianship, the vocals, the songcraft, the lyrics, the hooks, the flow of the album as a piece. Every time I put this on, everything feels right, and if I could only listen to 5 albums for the rest of my life, you’d be damn sure The Colour of Spring would be in there. So when I speak about this album, it is in no way objective, but it is sincere and with the utmost reverence.

Mark Hollis and Talk Talk went through a sea change after the synth pop successes of their earlier albums, The Party’s Over and It’s My Life. Colour marked a shift to a more tangible sound—the sound of real instruments, being played at the peak of musicianship, with a deft touch and with a discerning ear towards how separate pieces make up a whole.

In addition, we see Hollis and team begin their experimentation with negative space here—something they would go on to perfect with subsequent albums Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock. The songs “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day” demonstrate this burgeoning interest most clearly on the album.

“April 5th” begins with gentle sequenced shakers and tambourine, and slowly takes shape with organ and Hollis’ soft voice. Throughout, droplets of instrumentation patter on top: a piano chord here, a sprinkling of acoustic guitar there, tender horns, subtle synth strings. It’s a pattern followed fairly closely on the rest of the album’s songs, but here Hollis and crew have stripped it down to bare bones, and in doing so draw attention to those moments in between the noise.

There’s a moment at the halfway point where the song hangs only on two notes from a keyboard for a whole 4 measures. It’s a wonderful demonstration of Hollis’ ability to build tension within songs by breaking them down to their barest moments. There are spaces in the song that remain unfilled by noise—gaps where the play between what is heard and what isn’t creates a dance of its own. It’s a realization of the idea that sometimes the most effective sound is no sound at all. This idea would go on to inform how Hollis shaped music for the rest of his career.

In addition to working in negative space, Talk Talk employ a diverse set of instrumentation in every one of these songs. In many cases, something will flit into the forefront, shape the song for a moment, then flit out never to be heard from again. It’s not the sheer amount of instrumentation that is of note here, however. It’s Hollis’ scrupulous employment of specific sounds and his ability to choose the right sound needed for each moment. Each choice feels as though it’s been given special consideration. And each choice shapes the songs in which they appear.

Take for instance, the wind instrument that chimes in at 2:03, in the left channel, in “Living in Another World.” This exact sound shows up perhaps 3 times on the entire album, none of which by haphazard choice.

Or consider the entirety of “I Don’t Believe in You,” in which organ drops in every so often, a heavily affected guitar bleats twice at the beginning of the song, a mellotron dances in quickly then vanishes, or a saxophone is added very low in the mix during the last lead-up. These pieces are sprinkled enough throughout until they become not only part of the whole, but the whole itself. It’s a master-class in song composition technique.

But nowhere does Hollis sacrifice pop sensibility for experimentation here. Unlike later albums, the songs here could be called pop music. And indeed, this album was Talk Talk’s greatest success, with “Life is What You Make It” charting in the top 20 and “Living in Another World” breaking into the top 40 in the UK.

“Life is What You Make It” is generally considered one of Hollis’ best pieces. Its inclusion after the confrontational and rebellious “I Don’t Believe in You” provides a counterpoint to that previous message. Hollis implores us to see life for what it is, to not rely on any other power, and to make it our own. It’s a striking song in not only its uplifting message, but also its incredibly catchy melodies. The chugging bass line, the mechanical and insistent drumbeat, the liquid synths, and the soaring guitar all coalesce to create the high mark of the album.

Hollis and Talk Talk would not reach these heights in popularity again, even through their following two albums are just as, if not more than, accomplished as The Colour of Spring. What they did help forge, however, was an appreciation for minimalist tendencies, and a focus on quality over quantity.

Much has been written about Hollis’ minimalist leanings and his reluctance to add to the discourse surrounding the music. In an interview for Vox, Hollis stated, “The most important thing you can work with is silence… I’ve always believed that one note is better than two, two notes are better than three, so it’s never hard to choose because you’re looking for very small fragments.” Those small fragments are all over Colour, and the effect is a meticulous masterstroke.

And so in the music, as in life, more is not necessarily better. When asked to explain his music in that same interview, Hollis retorted, “If you understand it, you do. If you don’t, nothing I say will make you understand it. The only thing I can do by talking about it is detract from it. I can’t add anything. Can I go home now, then?” And indeed, after he had made his mark, and his legacy was set, Hollis retired from making music, content in knowing what was written didn’t need adding to.

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