Sometimes, an artist or group’s music changes and matures over the course of their career. This is certainly the case for the band this article is about. In their early years, their music was similar to many of the New Romantic groups popular back then. Their first two albums were very different to what would follow. After 1982’s The Party’s Over and 1984’s It’s My Life, Talk Talk released three very different albums, where their sound totally changed. It would probably be fair to say by their third album The Colour of Spring in 1986 an album I’ve previously written about, their music had matured. The follow up to that album Spirit of Eden in 1988, was a totally different album. It was recorded over a period of two years, during which time their management and record company executives weren’t allowed to hear what the music was like. When the band sent a copy of the album to EMI, their record company, they quickly came to the opinion that the album wouldn’t be a commercial success. Spirit of Eden can best be described as six beautiful, serene musical soundscapes. It’s perfect for chilling out to, and letting the multiple layers of music wash over you. On its release, critics weren’t impressed, their reviews were mainly negative. Since then, as often happens with music critics, they’ve belatedly changed their mind. Now, Spirit of Eden has been critically acclaimed, reaching minor classic status. However, the question must be asked, why didn’t they realize that in 1988? Released in September 1988, the album failed to match the success of The Colour of Spring, reaching only number nineteen in the UK album charts. That however, wouldn’t be the only problem Talk Talk had back then. 

When Talk Talk entered the studio in 1987, to begin recording Spirit of Eden, they did so with a cast of sixteen musicians, a choir and a multitude of instruments. It was to be a protracted process, taking until the following year to complete. Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene had written the six songs on the album, but recording them wouldn’t be easy. During the recording sessions, many hours of improvised music was recorded. Remarkably, some of these sessions were recorded in darkness. They’d then be edited by Hollis and Friese-Greene using the studio’s digital equipment. This was a laborious process, and much of the material had to be heavily edited. After the editing process was finished, it was a masterful combination of ambient music, jazz and rock. A better description would be post-rock, and groups like Sigur Ros, Mogwai and Radiohead with their later music, would be influenced by Spirit of Eden, and the post-rock genre. However, when Talk Talk sent a cassette of the album to their record company a problem arose.

When the cassette of Spirit of Eden arrived at EMI, executives listened to the album, and quickly came to the conclusion that the album wouldn’t be a commercial success. EMI asked Mark Hollis to rerecord a track, or replace parts of the album. He quite rightly, refused to do so, unwilling to let executives dictate the album’s musical direction. Later that month, the master tapes were sent to EMI, and by then, they’d changed their mind. They decided that Talk Talk had fulfilled their contractual obligations by successfully completing the album. It was then that EMI dropped a bombshell, they decided to take up an option to extend Talk Talk’s recording contract. 

Both Talk Talk and their manager Keith Aspden believed that EMI was the wrong label for the band. The dispute then centered around a letter EMI should send the band if they wished to extend the contract. It should’ve been sent to the band three months after Spirit of Eden had been completed. Talk Talk argued that the letter had been sent too late, that it should’ve been sent within three months of the album’s completion. EMI argued that the period was actually within a three month period that began once they were satisfied with the album. In court, the judgment went in favor of EMI, and the contract was extended. However, the band appealed the judgment, and in the Court of Appeal, the judgment was overturned and Talk Talk were released from their contract with EMI. They then signed to Polydor, releasing their final album Laughing Stock through their jazz imprint Verve.

Promoting Spirit of Eden wasn’t like promoting any other album. The band didn’t want to release a single from the album, but eventually, in September 1988, I Believe In You was released as a single. Another problem was the band didn’t want to tour the album, as it would’ve been impossible to recreate the music on the album live. Mark Hollis said that it wouldn’t be able to recreate the spontaneousness of the music. In retrospect, their decision not to tour was a good choice, it would’ve been impossible to recreate such a complex piece of music live, and wouldn’t have done the music credit. However, by only releasing one single, and not touring, this didn’t help the promotion of the album. As a result, it stalled at number nineteen in the UK album charts, failing to match the success of its predecessor The Colour of Spring. Another thing that didn’t help sales were critics. 

Mostly, reviews of Spirit of Eden were negative. Critics didn’t seem to “get” the album, and the reviews weren’t good. However, as often happens, critics have a tendency to rewrite history. Years later, critics reevaluated Spirit of Eden. The same critics that panned the album, very belatedly scratched their heads, and realized “oh maybe we missed something.” They then decided that the album was misunderstood, and was really a minor classic. Now, Spirit of Eden is quite rightly, albeit belatedly, recognized as the fabulous album it has always been. Now I’ll tell you just what makes Spirit of Eden such a great album.

Spirit of Eden opens with The Rainbow, which has a slow, atmospheric start, a mixture of light and shade. Sounds emerge from the mix, some you recognize straight away, others you can’t quite place. One minute, the track has an ethereal, crystalline sound, the next it’s dark and broody. The track is intriguing, meandering along at a pedestrian pace. An oboe can be heard, a bassoon too. Strings are present, sound effects too. Water running, a steam train as well. Sometimes the track nearly grinds to halt, the silence is powerful. You find yourself asking, what’ll happen now? Then a guitar plays, its solo spacious, reverberating, joined by a harmonica. Suddenly, the arrangement takes a more traditional form. Mark Hollis sings, his voice fragile, accompanied by piano, guitar, harmonica and organ. His lyrics are thoughtful, complete with a tinge of cynicism. By now the arrangement has transformed into a beautiful, subtle piece of thoughtful music. Towards the end, it’s just drums, a soaring harmonica and guitar that accompany Mark. At the end of the track, The Rainbow has proved to be an intriguing, complex piece of music, influenced by jazz, rock and ambient music. However, it has an ethereal quality, with a subtle beauty, and is full of subtleties and nuances waiting to reveal themselves. 

Eden sweeps majestically into being, sound slowly emerge, revealing themselves. Although their sounds are diverse, a mixture of woodwind, piano, electric bass and some that defy description, they combine perfectly, producing a moody soundscape that slowly unveils itself. The drama builds, guitar, piano and drums combining to produce a dramatic, melodic, yet sometimes discordant, near frantic soundscape. Once its reached a dramatic crescendo, Mark sings. Here the lyrics are highly literate, with a classical and spiritual feel. They’re contemplative, yet a sense of anger and frustration is present. As he sings, the arrangement becomes much more understated, with drums played slowly, plenty space between each beat, a piano playing in the background. Quickly, this changes, and the arrangement grows much fuller, almost like a mini wall of sound. This doesn’t last long, and thereafter, drums and guitar are joined by double bass. Again, the sound quickly builds up, and the song becomes like musical peaks and troughs. By now, a multitude of instruments, are contributing towards what is become a sometimes dramatic and spectacular track. Talk Talk’s decision to use sixteen musicians is paying off, and layer upon layer of sounds emerge. Some are easy to identify, some not so. Regardless of this, it’a a complex multi-textured piece of music that enthralls you. It becomes hard to drag yourself away from the music. In some ways, it’s like a book, you want to see where the plot takes you. Here, for seven and half minutes, Talk Talk take you on a startling and stunning musical journey, visiting various moods and influences. Like a child, one minute it’s happy and joyous, the next mercurial and moody. 

It’s a mixture of sounds and influences that greet you when Desire begins. There are classical and spiritual influences present, the latter because of the organ playing. The tempo is slow, as the track takes an ambient turn, subtle sounds emerging beautifully. A piano and guitar play, woodwind and bass join the arrangement. Then Mark Hollis sings, his lyrics trying to explain not excuse, his behavior. He doesn’t seem at peace with himself, trying hard to fight whatever is tormenting him, obvious by the almost bleak lyrics. Like the previous track, when he sings, the arrangement starts much more subtle, then quickly, bursts into life. When it does, it’s quite a contrast and shock to the system. One minute the arrangement was a lovely tranquil, meandering one, the next guitars sole soaring and screeching, drums pounded and percussion getting in on the act. It becomes like a different track. Atop the arrangement is Mark’s vocal, passionate and powerful, in keeping with the arrangement. Desire is a dichotomy of a track. Sometimes it’s a reflective laid back soundscape, then it’s transformed into a near frenzied rock workout. As contrasts go, this is quite extreme, but the music is masterful. A thoughtful, intricate combination of jazz, rock and ambient music, which throughout its duration reveals a multitude of musical secrets and subtleties.

A cymbal softly played opens Inheritance, accompanied by a piano, slowly played. They’re joined by bass and double bass before Mark sings. When he does, his voice has a softness and fragility. Here, the lyrics read like a pean to nature and life itself, albeit one looking at its fragility, whilst we carry on as life gradually passes, ignoring what’s going on around us, sometimes proving foolhardy and regrettable. Gradually, the arrangement slowly moves along, beautiful subtle sounds escaping from the mix. Mostly, subtly is the best way to describe the track. A double bass quietly is plucked, guitars join in, drums, cymbals and percussion play, woodwind appear, and disappear. Mark’s voice becomes like an instrument, as his voice takes soars and falls, drenched in sadness and pathos. Inheritance is quite simply a beautiful track, one that tugs at your heartstrings and sets you thinking about the fleeting, temporary nature of nature, and life itself.

The most recognizable song on the album is I Believe In You, which was released as a single from Spirit of Eden. Drums and percussion open the track, chiming guitars, and a slow piano can be heard. Again, it’s an understated sound, and when Mark sings, the fragility is still present. He leaves space within his vocal, occasionally his voice soars, an ethereal quality present. Around him, the arrangement unfolds, instruments joining, then leaving the track, only to reappear later. An organ plays, adding an atmospheric sound, strings sweep in. Suddenly a lush sound has developed. The sound becomes really pleasing due to a choir singing. It then head into a discordant territory, when the choir disappear They’re replaced by a mixture of instruments. Quickly, the track gets back on track, the organ and drums joined by a lovely sweeping sound that sees the reappearance of the choir. Their addition brings new life to the track. Sometimes Mark accompanies them, mostly they’re allowed to take centre stage. By the end, a beautiful track has emerged, made all the better by the addition of the choir. They bring a beautiful crystalline and spiritual sound to the track, and are the perfect addition to complete what was already a great track.

Spirit of Eden closes with Wealth, one of the album’s highlights. It’s both a beautiful sounding track and one with great lyrics. They’re thoughtful and intelligent and an interesting take on the subject of wealth, pointing how things like freedom, love and sanity are a form of wealth. From the start, it’s apparent something special will unfold. Mark Hollis sings accompanied by piano and organ, both played slowly and thoughtfully. The tempo is kept really slow, bringing out the beauty and subtly in the song. During the track, you’re captivated by this enchanting, melancholy piece of music. A double bass and guitar play, doing so quietly, with care. Nothing is allowed to overpower Mark’s vocal which is laden with passion and feeling. Meanwhile organ and harmonium combine, guitars playing in the background briefly. By now, I’ve realised that Talk Talk have kept the best track until last. It’s a stunning track, understated, thoughtful and beautiful, and a perfect way to end the album.

Since Spirit of Eden was released in 1988, I’ve been captivated by the album. I couldn’t quite understand how so many people failed to “get” the album like I did. It seemed people didn’t understand what was an innovative album, and because of that, either wrote bad reviews or didn’t buy it. Thankfully, and eventually, people changed their minds about Spirit of Eden and it has since become a minor classic. People changed their minds about the album, and now, it’s referred to as one of the best albums of the 1980s’. I suppose it’s better late than never. Spirit of Eden is a mixture of musical styles. Rock, jazz and ambient music are the influences on the album. The jazz influence is especially important, as much of the music was improvised, then edited. It took sixteen musicians, a multitude of instruments and a choir nearly two years to complete this album. Their efforts were well worthwhile, because Spirit of Eden is a brilliant album, that has a timeless quality. Every time I listen to it, you hear something new, subtleties and nuances reveal themselves changing my perception of the album. To me, it’s an album that deserves to be in every true music lover’s collection. It’s a powerful yet tranquil piece of music, music that you can truly relax to, layer upon layer of music gently washing over you. Standout Tracks: The Rainbow, Desire, Inheritance and Wealth. 



  1. Sandy

    I totally agree with you except I would say this is more than a minor masterpiece. I first came across it about two years ago and have been under its spell ever since. It seems to reveal more and more on each hearing. Speaking as a professional classical musician, I would put it up there with anything from the latter years of the 20th century. The added factor of general mystery surrounding Mark Hollis’s disappearance just adds to the specialness of the experience – it seems that no one will ever attempt a live recreation of this music.

    • Hi sandy, thanks for your comments. you’re correct, it is much more than a minor masterpiece, it’s one of the finest albums of the last forty years. isn’t it such a shame that mark hollis seems to have disappeared from the music scene. we can’t afford to lose someone of his talent from music. along with the blue nile, who are also one of my favourite bands, i wish mark hollis would record another album. alas, it looks like we can only dream. thanks again for your kind comments.

  2. RedShift

    For the record, Mark Hollis did release a solo album, and Tim Friese-Green has some post-TT work out there, including (iirc) a stint with/as “No-Man, which can be found floating about the net here and there if you look hard enough. And of course, there’s the O-rang stuff, for completists.

    Lastly, if you haven’t heard the b-sides/outtakes from the last couple of albums, chase them down asap. (“Stump”, “New Grass”, “After The Flood”, etc.) They’re amazing pieces of work. Remarkable that they didn’t make the cut in the first place.

    • Hi there, thanks for the information, I must check out the albums by Mark and Tim. I just wish Talk Talk had been a much more prolific band, and left us with a few more memorable albums. However, we must be thankful for the albums that they did produce. Thanks again. Best wishes. derek

  3. Kudos for this review of one of the truly original and most memorable albums to survive the eighties. The fact that casual listeners and most critics were of the opinion that Hollis and Company were a synthpop band will always be a mystery to me. Their compositions provided hooks, melodic content but repeated listening for me revealed more.

    And then came “Spirit of Eden”, banished from my turntable, branded as navel-gazing self indulgence. How foolish. When I revisited it years later, well I had grown up. As with most art this work rewards repeated listening and evaluation.

    Talk Talk was the real deal. Producing songs that offered great lyrics(Such a Shame still thrills me) and arrangements ahead of most of the bands at that time. Think of it this way. No label would touch this material now, we got lucky.

  4. Thanks Harold,
    Spirit of Eden is a great album, a minor classic, one I still revisit all these years later. Even now, I still discover more of its subtleties and nuances that previously, I’ve never noticed. It’s one of my favourite albums of that time. Glad you liked the review. Keep reading the blog and thanks for your kind comments.

    Best Wishes,
    Derek Anderson.

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