Monday, 2 May 2011
55 The Colour Of Spring - Talk Talk
Purchased : February 1986
Tracks : Happiness Is Easy / I Don't Believe In You / Life's What You Make It / April 5th / Living In Another World / Give It Up / Chameleon Day / Time It's Time
This was bought in Leeds on a weekday afternoon.
It was my first "just out" purchase for quite a while. This was Talk Talk's third LP and the most commercially successful of their original albums, benefitting from the unexpected success of the single "Life's What You Make It" , their first Top 40 hit in over three years. It's also the last LP of their original incarnation as a modern pop band. To someone like me who hasn't yet found a way into their subsequent material (and is dreading having to write about it) it feels very much like a swansong.
The balance of power had altered significantly in the band with all the songs written by Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene and original members Paul Webb and Lee Harris augmented by an expanded cast of session musicians although for promotional purposes the group was still a trio for the time being. This is the first LP in which the lyrics are reproduced in Hollis's barely legible scrawl.
Unlike the previous couple of LP's there's very little anger in any of the songs which are melancholy to the point of sickness. The release was well-timed as 1986 was bookended by harsh winters and the first provided a fitting background for listening to this LP.
It sets its stall out straightaway with the sardonically-titled and utterly mournful "Happiness Is Easy" with Hollis lamenting the abuse of religion to justify evil acts. It builds slowly from the shuffling percussion of the intro with xx's acoustic bass (Webb isn't on the track at all) wandering seemingly where it wants and acoustic guitar , Steve Winwood's organ and piano dropping in and out of the mix ( you really need headphones to catch everything going on ) . Hollis's point is driven home by the use of an unschooled children's choir singing a Christian nursery rhyme while he repeats the title, lower in the mix, shut out from their innocence (a potent reminder to me that I would soon be leaving the womb of the education system) . After six and a half mesmerising minutes they shuffle away leaving you numbed.
A reviewer on Amazon suggests that the whole LP is about the decay of a long-term relationship and while it's difficult to fit the previous track into that concept it's clearly what's going on in "I Don't Believe In You" . Hollis's vocal veers between despair and glum resignation on this slow-burning song which throws in a Floyd-esque slide guitar solo midway through and features brief contributions from The Lexicon Of Love harpist Gaynor Sadler. It fades out slowly without resolution just as the situation it describes can't be resolved. EMI bizarrely released it as a fourth single 6 months after the last and long after the tour had finished and unsurprisingly it tanked, a poor fate for a powerful song.
"Life's What You Make It" still baffles me; I can't see the hook that made it so popular. It's a mantra rather than a song with no chorus and no great melody either. Mark Hollis sings the tritely positivist lyrics like he doesn't believe a word of them. Webb (an under-rated backing vocalist) compounds the irony with his "Everything's alright" refrain. I guess the hook must be in the music, everything swirling round Hollis's unyielding bassline played on the far left of the piano and Harris's aggressive drumming. The scorching guitar and organ swells both sound like they're trying and failing to break out of the vortex of despair at the heart of the song.
And then "April 5th" lets a little light in with Hollis using the approach of spring as a metaphor for his own hopes of rebirth. The wintry piano chords at the beginning remind me of the Blue Nile's Easter Parade and this is similarly slow and stately . Webb and Harris are both absent with Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene providing most of the backing on organ and variophone. Hollis's "Come gentle spring " plea is a delicate whimper and his closing ad libs around the line "Let me breathe" are almost like blubbering. I do think this last section goes on a tad too long.
Side Two opens with the two follow up singles which reverted to the usual pattern of falling short of the Top 40. "Living In Another World" is the most uptempo track with nods to classic rock in Steve Winwood's Hammond contribution and Mark Feltham's harmonica. It's also has the most direct lyric with the first line "Better parted" summing up the whole theme of the song , a cry of pain from the wreckage of a relationship. Hollis alternates between resigned relief and grief (signified by the heart-stopping swell of Winwood's organ) . Besides laying down a proddiing bassline Webb provides an ironic counter-vocal interrupting Hollis's musings with the command "Forget ! " and closing out the chorus himself. The lengthy middle eight begins with a crashing piano chord echoing with terrifying finality before Feltham and David Rhodes chip in with solos. It was probably too rich a brew for a 1986 single but it's one of the standout tracks here.
"Give It Up" seems like an inner dialogue with Hollis posing unanswerable questions like "How can I learn if I don't undertsand what I see ? " . The anguished cries of the title set to the glorious Hammond sound on the chorus (where Friese-Greene proves himself the equal of Winwood) are the thrilling heart of the song with echoes of Joe Cocker at his peak. Webb and Harris are equally important in moving the song along with purpose.
They're both missed on the next track "Chameleon Day" which only features Hollis and Friese-Greene with variophone and sparing piano . Hollis's love of Miles Davis and John Coltrane is obvious. Full of pregnant pauses you can barely hear Hollis on the first verse then he bursts out on the second "eclipse my mind it's in some kind of disarray". It's effective in documenting a late night of the soul but not really my cup of tea musically. Unfortunately it's the best pointer to their subsequent material on the LP.
That leaves us with "Time It's Time". It's position on the LP means it's come to be seen as the swansong for Talk Talk the pop band and it fits well with its message of rebirth while at the same time carrying echoes of the Gothic despair of "The Party's Over". The warm beginning where Hollis purrs the soporific lyric suddenly gives way to a determination to move on -"As bad as bad becomes it's not a part of you" - and the Ambrosia Choir comes in with a wordless ethereal chant behinfd the simple "Time it's time to live" message. It's stunningly reminiscent of Pink Floyd especially the best bits of Atom Heart Mother with the same ambition to elevate the deeply personal into the universal. After five minutes there's a brief melodica solo and then the flutes come in with a gorgeous Pied Piper refrain which continues for the rest of the song , Hollis's last words being "rest your head" as the music slowly fades away and EMI 's great white hopes of 1982 leave pop music behind forever.
That wasn't quite the end of the story for me as I went to see them in Leeds in May 1986. At the time I was disappointed because they ignored "The Party's Over" altogether (although they did do "Talk Talk" on other dates) but now I'm pleased I saw them on their last ever tour. We'll discuss the subsequent albums at the appropriate time but the first three form a trinity of excellence that I'll always appreciate. There's never a time when I'm unreceptive to them but like the man said it was time to move on.
* This turned out to be the last purchase of my university days because I was losing control of my finances. The main cause was my moving out of the hall of residence for the last year and renting a house nearer the university with two other guys. One was no problem at all but I soon realised that living with the other with no constraints on his behaviour was a bad mistake . To make it worse he was actually taking a year out due to exam failure; you never knew what you were coming home to ( starting a fire in the cellar to keep himself warm despite the lack of a chimney was the classic ). On top of this there was a pack of Hostel -style feral kids in the neighbourhood who were reportedly targeting students. After one term I decided not to return and lived at home for the next ; there was some justification for this as my dissertation was on local politics in the Rochdale area so the research needed to be done in the local libraries.
The problem was that I'd already given the landlord post-dated cheques for the latter two terms and after taking legal advice I didn't have the nerve to cancel them. My attempts to sub-let the room foundered on the fact that it was little bigger than a shoebox. This took a toll on my bank account particularly in the summer term when I chose to rent a university flat rather than return to the house.
My head was in a strange place that year. I got worked up about things that were utterly trivial such as my former Hall's decision to withdraw the external member's scheme (basically you paid a fiver to be able to come in and watch TV or use the snooker table ) . Despite the fact that such facilities were available at the University Union much closer to where we lived and a much-improved security system had made the former policy impracticable, I took this as a personal affront. On the other hand the Careers Office had to track me down to go in for an interview and I didn't look at their literature until my last fortnight.
This neglect and a very sloppy application for funding for an MA which was quite rightly rejected meant an 8 month spell on the dole. Returning home shielded me from any real hardship but I couldn't walk in the house with a new LP while I still owed my mum money for the rent of the flat.
Which is a long explanation for the hiatus until Helen's birthday gift in December.