Jul 312006

The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot.
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

The modern screenwriting instructor would say that the grief-stricken queen has an arc: she lives, she saddens, she dies. For an arc you need at least three points: with only two you have a straight line. This blog also had an arc. It began uncertainly, thrashing about for topics and style. Gradually it found subject matter, in cultural criticism, and received a bit of notice. It grew, modestly in readers, by leaps and bounds in self-importance. Posts lengthened; intervals between posts lengthened vastly. At last the blog undertook to remake Western philosophy from the ground up, beginning with thermodynamics. This project included formulae and could not be understood without them — a more or less deliberate affront to the blog’s mostly literary readers. Alpha theory was pursued through seven installments, at immense intervals. The rest, inevitably, was silence.

This arc, which one might call Self-Immolation, was traced more impressively by the British band Talk Talk. They began as ordinary synth-poppers: The Party’s Over, their first record, could have been made by Duran Duran (for whom they opened on a 1982 tour) or any of two dozen groups of the period. Their second record, It’s My Life, is great of its kind but is still recognizable as a kind. Their third record, The Colour of Spring, is transitional; about half of it still sounds like rock and it can be enjoyed by people who are not tuned to the band’s precise wavelength. It was a commercial success, produced a hit single, “Life’s What You Make It,” and induced the band’s record company, EMI, to give them an immense budget and plenty of time to make their next record.

Alienating your audience and infuriating your sponsor are the essence of Self-Immolation, and Talk Talk disappointed on neither front. The band disappeared into an abandoned church, spent the budget and then some while refusing to release any advance tapes to the company, and emerged fourteen months later with Spirit of Eden. They proceeded to inform EMI that there would be no singles. No tour either, since the arrangements were too complex to recreate live. EMI nonetheless released “I Believe in You” as a single without permission. The band promptly sued. EMI countersued for breach of contract, on the grounds that this wasn’t the record they were expecting, or everybody has to tour whether he promised to or not, or the band could have made a hit record if they felt like it but they just didn’t feel like it, or something. One outcome of the litigation was that the group was forced to make a “video” for its “single.” By chance, on MTV, I saw what was probably its sole airing. It consisted of Mark Hollis, the singer, sitting on a stool, against a white background, singing and playing guitar, in one, uncut shot, for seven minutes.

Spirit of Eden was an equally spectacular critical success and commercial flop. It does not resemble any other music I know, except the band’s next and last record. I cannot, in words, make it seem palatable, let alone appetizing. (This may be a general problem; music critics seem to write around the music rather than about it.) It sounds, to the unaccustomed ear, like long stretches of whale sounds punctuated by brief outbursts of noisy free jazz. Regardless, listening to it is as close, with music, as I have ever come to the “transcendence” about which George Hunka and AC Douglas have been known to natter on and in which I usually profess not to believe.

After Spirit of Eden the band moved to Verve and made Laughing Stock, the same sort of thing only more so. There was nothing left to do but break up. As Mark Hollis put it in an interview, “When we finished Laughing Stock, there was no way I could get my head around doing another album because what we’d just done was so complete an expression of what I wanted to do, that the idea of writing something different just seemed impossible at the time.” There, in a sentence, is the Self-Immolator’s credo.

Yet it is difficult, without dying, to self-immolate entirely. Time hangs heavily. Talk Talk’s other members went on to form other bands and do other things. Hollis himself released a solo record years later, so ethereal that it is barely there. Although he has not been heard from in nearly a decade I would not be too surprised to see him return again.

In my own far smaller way, I too have decided to spoil my story arc and revive the blog. Partly because I have reached an age where I forget what I don’t write down, and partly because — well, I miss you guys.

Still, Hollis’s philosophy is a bit grandiose for me. I prefer to draw my inspiration from Derek Smalls, Spinal Tap bassist, who tells the band, before their first post-Nigel gig, as it dawns on them that without Nige they have no songs left to play, “You know what that leaves, don’t you? Jazz odyssey.” Welcome, then, to God of the Machine Mach 2. We hope you enjoy our new direction.