03 August 2009

Talk Talk
The Party's Over

This is a seriously godlike -- yet largely forgotten -- album of pop perfection.

Oh sure, all the requisite themes of New Wave are in there -- loneliness and isolation, broken hearts on sharp-angled, stylised rocks, washed in waves of synths and drum machine beats all while remaining immaculately dressed and coiffed -- but beyond the fashion of the day are nine really outstanding songs, and they haven’t aged a day in terms of my affection and enthusiasm for them. Few bands, even among the ones I collect, have kept my excitement for each track going after so many years, particularly when the band itself is dead and gone and is incredibly unlikely to ever come back.

Like another band who’s first album is an unbridled gem, Talk Talk released a warm-up EP before continuing to a full album. Unlike REM, however, all of the songs on the EP appear unaltered on the album, showing that they could simply do more of the same on a whim, instantly establishing them as a major act for their all-too-brief time in the sun.

The Party’s Over is one of the more ironic titles of the time, as this record was great for dancing to and generally providing a signpost on how to slouch, dress and generally communicate your own alienation to the world if you are one of the chosen, the outcasts, the homo superior of your peer group. This record is goth before goth even really got going, with its constant references to having given everything with nothing in return, the crime of being uncertain, a world of emptiness, losing sleep, priests losing faith, children crying, guilt and emotional pain and of course a always-bitter narrator railing against an unnamed female antagonist (or occasionally the entire world).

Man, we really knew how to get dumped back in the 80s! I’m stunned that this isn’t a cult item with the current generation of glittering emo-vamps. Maybe if they used one of the songs in the next Twilight movie, that would do the trick ...

Still, Mark Hollis (and later Tim Friese-Green)’s pain is our pleasure, and what pleasure it is. Yes, The Party’s Over is very synth-heavy, but that’s not what shines through: it’s the songwriting and vocal performances, pure and simple. At the time of the album’s release, Talk Talk were often compared to contemporaries like Duran Duran and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, but then and now I don’t think that’s even close to the mark. To me, they are a lot like a synth version of early (and aforementioned) REM; playing with early ideas and themes but framed by the New Wave paradigm, influences from all over, and a fairly muddy and obtuse vocal as though afraid to really commit to this stuff, but still giving it all they’ve got.

“Another Word” by Talk Talk from The Party’s Over

The record kicks off with their own signature tune, “Talk Talk,” with an opening I still mistake to this day for Tears For Fears’ “Pale Shelter” for a measure before they kick it into high gear with the ultimate song of disaffection; a cry in the night that the whole world sounds like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. And it just goes on like that from there, incredibly catchy melodies providing a frame for a painting of loss and loneliness, decorated with all the trinkets of 80s synthpop, from cross-channel drums to electric piano (and some really pretty tight bass playing one might add, courtesy Paul Webb later of O.rang fame).

The pattern repeats over the entire first half of the album; a short, soft opening, followed by a synthbed to set the landscape, Mark Hollis arriving on a fast, pale horse with morose pronouncements, a shouty boy chorus to punctuate his edicts like the “Hear ye! Hear ye!” of old. But what’s amazing is that this never gets old, that this same set of deck chairs can keep getting re-arranged in ever-new, ever-fresh ways even when so many elements are exactly the same. This is the real genius of this record; a vision that never quite comes into focus, allowing us to re-visit it again and again.

By the time we get to the title track, we still aren’t sure where we’re going, but we do know one thing: Russell Mulcahy is the only man for the job of directing these videos. We need dry ice, and wheelbarrows of it. And I think that’s Japan’s lawyer on line 2, threatening to sue producer Colin Thurston for those occasional dips into Japanese/Chinese synth/percussion matching; that’s their shtick dammit!

How do I get so much joy out of a record with so much sorrow? It’s probably the ferocity of their delivery; most songs are delivered flat-out with all the urgency and passion one might call up to announce the end of the world. Back in those days, we still had the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over us, and there was a certain sensibility that if we were going out, we should go out shouting from the rooftops rather than whimpering in a corner. The Party’s Over takes that romantic nihilism to heart and gives us anthem to die to, if not for.

Things settle down a bit for the second half (aka “Side Two” -- remember, this is just prior to the CD era), still very poppy but more resigned than defiant, in songs like “Have You Heard the News?” and “Mirror Man” where we cool things down a little and survey the smoldering ruins of the Blade-runner-esque hellscape from atop a craggy hill, preferably in a windswept rain. This side is probably where the band picked up more of their Duran/Spandau/Roxy Music (!) comparisons -- there are definite touches that will remind you of them, but personally I think the band stands on their own, maintaining a distinct sound (largely from Mark Hollis’ penchant for sounding angry and defiant till the end of the line, when his voice turns sad and distant) while working in a by-now-familiar milieu.

Things pick back up again for “Another Word,” again predicting death and revolution and offering a jaunty tune to which we can march to our respective dooms. True to form, this is followed by the album’s closer, “Candy,” where the band gets almost jazzy in their laid-back despair, working lazily on the perfect rainy-day-just-been-dumped ballad. By this time, I’m thinking of Morrissey’s clever summation of almost three decades later: “As I live and breathe/You have killed me, you have killed me/Yes I walk around somehow/But you have killed me, you have killed me.”

If you want to dance with joy to the sound of an 80s heart breaking, you can’t do any better than The Party’s Over by Talk Talk. The creators themselves may seem to have moved on from here, but as long as there is a youthful generation needing anthems to kill the pain of being pure at heart, this record will never be completely obsolete.


Anonymous said...

Talk Talk really were something special. Personally, I'm in the gang that likes their later material. But still, the seeds had to be planted.

Ron Kane said...

Life's What You Make It, Chas-san. There are SACD's of Talk Talk!