By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Until now, we’ve largely been concerned with selecting some of the best poems by famous poets – everyone from Shakespeare to Seamus Heaney, Coleridge to Carol Ann Duffy. But since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, after literary critics like Sir Christopher Ricks had championed Dylan’s poetic song-writing for decades, we’ve begun thinking about music and poetry, songs as well as sonnets.
So in this post, we’ve picked ten of the very best songs by Talk Talk – one of the most original British bands of the last 40 years.
Talk Talk fans may disagree with some of our choices – picking the ten greatest Talk Talk songs, as with any band, is always going to invite disagreement as well as nods of assent – but, given Talk Talk’s relatively small output (just five studio albums over a decade), they focused on quality over quantity, so the ten songs introduced below represent a sizeable chunk of the band’s oeuvre.
1. ‘New Grass’.
Although we haven’t ranked the ten songs in this list, if we had, ‘New Grass’ would probably be right at the top. The penultimate song on their last-ever album together, 1991’s Laughing Stock, it’s beautifully mellow, poignant, even valedictory – yet as the title suggests, it’s about new beginnings and rebirth.
Guy Garvey of the band Elbow, one of Talk Talk’s most high-profile fans, has said he’d like this song played at his funeral: we’d choose this one too.
2. ‘After the Flood’.
Like ‘New Grass’, this song appeared on Talk Talk’s final album, their masterpiece Laughing Stock. It’s almost ten minutes of frenetic action, giving way to more relaxed moments, but with a steady drum beat keeping time throughout (unlike a number of the other tracks on the album, which are marked by beautifully deployed periods of silence). The song tells the story of rainfall and a deluge (hence the title), followed by the relative calm that ensues.
3. ‘I Believe in You’.
Before 1991’s Laughing Stock, there was 1988’s Spirit of Eden, the album which was commercial suicide for Talk Talk but which well and truly heralded their move into new music territory and what would eventually be named ‘post-rock’.
Inspired by the late Mark Hollis’s own brother Ed’s struggles with heroin addiction (Ed died from a drug overdose shortly before Spirit of Eden was released), this song was the one (unsuccessful) single released from an album whose songs were decidedly ‘unreleasable’.
A haunting song, especially when the choir kicks in towards the end – one can tell Talk Talk recorded this album in a disused church.
The track that follows ‘I Believe in You’, and concludes Spirit of Eden, ‘Wealth’ is another reminder of the fact that the album came out of a long, intensive recording and jamming session in a darkened church. With no percussion and few prominent instruments aside from the organ and Hollis’s beautiful, broken voice, ‘Wealth’ is a gloriously subdued conclusion to this ground-breaking album.
5. ‘John Cope’.
When ‘I Believe in You’ was released in 1988 and failed to chart, its B-side was this song, an off-cut from the recording session for The Colour of Spring. Named after a sound engineer (rather than the eighteenth-century soldier of that name), ‘John Cope’ is a B-side that most bands would kill to have as an album track.
6. ‘It’s Getting Late in the Evening’.
Another B-side, this track was on the flip-side to their 1986 single ‘Life’s What You Make It’, from The Colour of Spring. Whereas the A-side track was easily the most popular hit from the band’s third album, ‘It’s Getting Late in the Evening’ showed them making their first tentative steps towards the more free-falling experimentation of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock.
The way the track changes around halfway through with the introduction of the trumpet and delicate piano, complete with the strings, is the stuff that makes goosebumps.
7. ‘It’s My Life’.
Although ‘It’s My Life’, the title track from the band’s second album released in 1984, firmly belongs to their early period, it is a pop tour de force and easily the best song from their early years, blowing everything else out of the water. Is it about animal rights? The lyrics have puzzled many listeners and commentators over the years, but the song is infectious and bursting with sound throughout.
8. ‘April 5th’.
A low-key album track on The Colour of Spring which gradually builds in intensity, with haunting use of piano and a beautiful bumblebee effect that perfectly captures the coming of springtime. Play it every year on April the 5th – the modern-day version of the medieval ‘Sumer is icumen in’!
Another album track, from the second album, It’s My Life. Sandwiched on side one (for those of us who still have our original Talk Talk vinyl collections) between the singles, ‘Such a Shame’ and the title track, ‘Renee’ is a long meditative poem with quiet, meandering verses and a louder, more insistent chorus, as Hollis uses that powerful, unique voice of his to reflect on the fading beauty of a retired singer (or actress?).
Is the enigmatic title ‘Myrrhman’ meant to summon the New Testament or be a call-back to a track on the very first Talk Talk album, ‘Mirror Man’? The lyrics offer little help here: the scenario seems to be a bleak one in which the speaker is preparing to take his own life (placing a chair by the door ready to hang himself?).
The way the track develops sets up the masterpiece that is Laughing Stock with consummate beauty and skill.