Mark Hollis, lead singer and songwriter of influential 80s/early 90s group Talk Talk, is an interesting chap. At one point in his career, he openly admitted to detesting one of the most prominent and arguably overused instruments of the 80s – the synthesiser. But he also confessed to needing its sound in order to gain a foothold in the music industry, and thus have the necessary platform to create music that he actually wanted to.
Talk Talk’s first two albums, The Party’s Over and It’s My Life do indeed feature wall to wall synthesisers. Released in 1982, The Party’s Over was a safe enough debut for the band, slotting in stylistically alongside releases by contemporaries such as Soft Cell, Eurythmics, Duran Duran and The Human League, but barely distinguishing itself. However with the follow-up in 1984, It’s My Life, Hollis began to tentatively test the waters of varied sounds, even though the album was still very much a synth-dominated record, evident in tracks like “Dum Dum Girl” and the splendorous “It’s My Life”. But if The Party’s Over suffered from a clogging of synthesisers, It’s My Life freed up that space for different and interesting sounds, as in “Such A Shame” and “Does Caroline Know?”
So the progression to their third album, 1986’s The Colour of Spring, should have been obvious. It’d be expected to have a decline in the use of synthesisers, a greater array of sounds, and maybe a little experimentation. Not only did this album meet these expectations, it exceeded them in the most fantastic of fashions, resulting in what I regard as one of the finest pop albums of that decade.
What really seperates this release from just about every other pop album of its time is the production, handled by unofficial member and keyboardist Tim Friese-Greene, who had joined the group in 1983. The soundscapes in The Colour of Springremind me of The Beach Boy’s Pet Soundsin a lot of ways, channelling the same layered, rich style of production, as well as using a fairly diverse mix of instruments. Just humour me as I reel off the instruments featured on the album – drums, dobro guitar, electric guitar, bass, acoustic bass, organ (played by Mark Hollis and British legend Steve Winwood), harp, horn, soprano saxophone, mellotron, variophon, piano, harmonica, keyboards and Kurzweil synthesiser. Bit of a shift from just bass, drums and synthesiser in the previous two albums. As expected with such a line-up, rarely are there moments on the album where not much is happening sonically, there’s usually two or more instruments tracked alongside each other. Often these instances are so subtle they escape your ear the first few times around (a mark of an exceptional album, in my book), as is the case in Pet Sounds.
As for its content, the A-side and B-side of The Colour of Spring mirror each other in several respects. Both contain moments that are energetic and upbeat (“Life’s What You Make It”, “Living in Another World”), emotional and down tempo (“I Don’t Believe in You”, “Give It Up”), atmospheric and layered (“Happiness is Easy”, “Time It’s Time”) and lastly, explorative and somewhat experimental (“April 5th”, “Chameleon Day”). “April 5th” and “Chameleon Day” signify the true musical intentions of Mark Hollis, drawing on jazz and classical influences, and stripping down the large cast of instruments significantly, which proves to be an uncomfortable listen considering how production-heavy the rest of the album is. Much later, music critics would label this as one of the first instances of ‘post-rock’ (speaking of ridiculous genre names…), and Talk Talk would eventually be included among the first wave of ‘post-rock’ acts, alongside Slint, Bark Psychosis and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
The two standout tracks on this album are the aforementioned energetic and upbeat singles, “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living in Another World”. Both of these songs are so frantic and wild that at times it’s almost overwhelming. “Life’s What You Make It” features one of the most famous reverbed piano lines in popular music, which is incredibly thick and heavy, as well as superb, hard-hitting drum work by Lee Harris. The track is timeless, and has easily outlived whatever product was attached to it during television commercials in the 90s. It’s also a positive and encouraging song with a great message – life’s what you make it, right? “Living in Another World” hits you immediately with that crashing piano intro, which is aided by rhythmic dobro guitar and Mark Hollis’ wild vocals – “Heeelp me / Find my way from this maaa-haaaaze” These two tracks reached #16 and #48 on the UK charts respectively, and unfortunately future Talk Talk singles would barely register, if at all. The overall accessibility of the album was reflected in its success, reaching #8 in the UK charts, proving to be the group’s best-selling release.
The Colour of Springis one of the very few albums I would recommend to almost anyone, given they enjoy their music loud, emotional, heart-warming and with a dash of an experimental edge. It without question deserves a place alongside the finest pop albums of the 80s, an effort just as strong as Thriller, Purple Rain and The Joshua Tree. It may not be as ‘artsy’ or ‘highbrow’ as Talk Talk’s later albums, but it still manages to offer something new with every listen, and almost certainly has an infinite replay value – I’ll probably still be listening when I’m crumbling and decrepit.