Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden still feels like it belongs to another world
Original release: September 16, 1988
Label: Manhattan Records
Talk Talk released their fourth and penultimate album Spirit of Eden in 1988. The following year, the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama published The End of History?, an essay trumpeting the end of communism and the triumph of capitalist democracy. By the time Fukuyama expanded his essay into a book in 1992, he even felt confident enough to drop the question mark. Unfortunately, history would prove him wrong by carrying on regardless and – one dotcom bubble, a war on terror and a global financial crash later – raising a few question marks of its own at the capitalist world order.
Fukuyama missed the mark, but the tail- end of the 80s was nonetheless a time of strange upheaval. The Cold War ended suddenly, leaving America aimless and in charge, while Britain was drained after a decade of Tory rule. Meanwhile, the “second summer of love” brought the stirrings of an anti-establishment youth culture, this time built on the machinic repetition of sequencers instead of flaming guitars.
Against all that, Spirit of Eden can feel like it’s from another world entirely. A six-track suite of ghostly structures and sharp contrasts, it’s hard to imagine how it came from a band of power-pop hitmakers who had once been dismissed as a budget Duran Duran. Neither rock nor pop, Spirit of Eden has more in common with the cool introspection of early-60s Miles Davis or the dreamy minimalism of Erik Satie. Impossible to tour and with no conceivable hit single, the album confounded EMI and triggered a legal battle that ended with the band signing to Polydor for their final album, 1992’s Laughing Stock. By that time, the eccentric studio habits that frontman Mark Hollis and his co-producer Tim Friese-Greene had dreamt up for Spirit of Eden had fossilised. They blacked out the windows, threw out the clocks and worked by the light of an oil projector.
The members of Talk Talk had been in bands since the 70s, following the trail from punk to new wave to synth-pop. But on Spirit of Eden, you can hear the sound of a journey coming to an end. The album was pieced together from hours of improvised performances by outside musicians, with Hollis and Friese-Greene painstakingly editing tiny fragments of their recordings into a whole. With the band members evolving from musicians into producers, Spirit of Eden acknowledged a paradigm shift taking place: the redefining of pop through sampling technology.
Despite the labour-intensive conditions of its creation, Spirit of Eden above all offers silence; an escape from the brash excess of 80s pop. “Silence is the most important thing you have,” Hollis explained in an interview with Melody Maker in 1991. “Spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.” The album has often been called the beginning of “post-rock”, a genre that claims the end of rock itself. Hollis’s voice is the exact opposite of a flamboyant frontman; on I Believe In You it cracks and and crumbles in mid-air as he calls out to this unknown “spirit”, caught between between ecstasy and surrender.
The day after Hollis died, I listened to Spirit of Eden while walking through London on an uncomfortably hot February day. I noticed again the first line of the album. Whispered, as if Hollis thinks you’re not listening: “Oh yeah… the world’s turned upside down”. Eden, you have to remember, is not just a paradise, but the memory of a paradise lost, already spoiled in our minds with the knowledge of its destruction. It was 18 degrees that day, and every year our paradise shrinks. Insects disappear, birdsong is replaced with silence. These days my thoughts are plagued with the end of history – not the kind that Fukuyama celebrated, but a truly cataclysmic one.