It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Spirit of Eden is one of the most beautiful, haunting, mesmerizing and individual albums ever created. That it was the product of a band known more for its neu romantique electronique made it even more exotique in 1988 when, after spending more than a year spent in the studio, Talk Talk emerged with this undeniable masterpiece of mood and minimalism. Produced by Tim Friese-Greene, nominally the group's keyboardist, and wrenchingly sung by Mark Hollis, its dynamic textures, organic instruments, spare lyrics that say all ("Everyone needs someone to need them"), make it a concept album whose theme is transcendence, returning to the Garden in the fated moments before the apple is picked, when decision still hangs in the balance. The album seems suspended, carefully drawing each breath, an unfolding that — even after repeated listens — still surprises with delicate textural overlays and deliberate pacing. Songs flow into each other, motifs revolve and resolve as each element rises to the surface, and then makes way for the next in procession.
The Moment of Knowing
I first became aware of Talk Talk in the winter of 1986, when I was in Liverpool producing the major-label debut of James, Stutter. I heard or saw, since this was Top of the Pops a song which intrigued me because of its unchanging, steadfast bassline and precise arrangement: "Life's What You Make It." James were the opposite side of that coin, resolutely improvisational, and the irony would be that even as James learned to bring their wild-card proclivities into focus, resulting in the soaring Somes of "Sometimes" and "Say Something" on 1993's Laid, Talk Talk were allowing their inner psyches to undercut song structure in seemingly random slices, reordering them to provide melodic beds that blurred the parameters of the pop song. Laid steps back from the arena unfurl of "Sit Down" to explore more acoustic inclinations, and Tim Booth opens his heart to let his soul pour out.
The Moment of Howing
The engineer on Spirit of Eden was the inimitable Phill Brown, and so it was with considerable pleasure that I arrived in Rhode Island in the spring of 1994 to work with Kristin on her first solo album to find Phill behind the board "desk" as he referred to it in his soft English accent. The sessions took place in a rural studio attached to a horse corral, and you could open the back window of the control room to see equestrian riders practicing their jumps, a surreal experience, to say the least. Stepping back from Throwing Muses, Kristen envisioned a stark album of acoustic guitar set against Jane Scarpantoni's cello, her voice as "Your Ghost," and with Phill expertly positioning the microphones in all analog splendor, Hips and Makers was as unadorned and plaintive as Spirit of Eden, though hardly alike in mood and temperament. In between takes, I of course queried Phill on how Talk Talk had made their storied record, and he told me of sessions where the musicians played along to tracks without listening to them, where darkness in the studio was a given, and the long uphill climb of an album that seemed so amorphous it might never be finished. Lightning in a bottle, which is how I think of Hips and Makers as well, walking in the adjacent fields between takes, the music of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees amid bird song ("A Loon") and the sound of hooves in the distance.
The Moment of Recreation
Early Talk Talk were hooky within their Duran-esque parameters; with their girl-power anthems and Gwen Stefani's role model charisma (No Doubt were the first band my daughter wanted to see after she grew out of the Muppet Babies), No Doubt's decision to cover "It's My Life" felt natural. That America had only vaguely heard the original (a minor hit) made it even more infectious, and by 2003, with No Doubt taking a back seat to Gwen's burgeoning solo career, a cover seemed the easiest way to bolster a greatest hits collection. Though Talk Talk's early synthpop incarnation is often second-stringed to their later experimental forays, it should be remembered that they were a standout in a genre often remembered more for its dated fashion sense than for the classic singles it produced. The reimaginging by No Doubt is pure Stefani shout-out from the original Hollaback Girl.
The Moment of Inspiration
The 1994 debut album of Portishead, in its spatial use of sample and sance-like vocal, is Spirit of Eden trip-hopped and spun into the future. The palette is broad, incorporating found shards of sound and riffage, creating a mood swing that allows Beth Gibbons to meditate her observations "Can anybody see?" she asks in "Roads," with a quaver that is pure Mark Hollis and create structured songs out of these disparate disembodied parts. There is a breath-held anticipation to each track, wondering what might come next, and a certainty of evolution when it does arrive. As if to underscore the Talk Talk connection even more, bassist Paul Webb would collaborate with Gibbons under the name of Rustin Man in 2002 with the album Out of Season.
The Moment of Exhaltation
The composer Alan Hovhaness is less well-known than many of his peers in 20th-century symphonic composition, but only because he was interested in so many different musical outcroppings that he is hard to pigeonhole. Yet for all its odd sourcings here, the divination of "Symphony #4" is centered around Hovhaness's admiration for Seventh Century Armenian religious music, classical music of South India, orchestral music of Tang Dynasty China around 700 A.D. and opera-oratorios of Handel, as well as what the composer called "the giant melody of the Himalayan Mountains" he remains remarkably melodic and accessible. The relation of "Symphony No. 4" (and other Hovhaness classics like his "Symphony No. 2", also known as "Mysterious Mountain," or the solo piano pieces of Shalimar, played by Hovhaness himself) to Spirit of Eden is one of like-minded spiritual wanderers; his innovative use of instrument in the second movement he aligns a solo marimba with vibraphone, timpani, and glockenspiel - rises to the hymnal and fugue that is the third movement, Andante espressivo, bells clanging in joyous cacophony, as if the thousand towers of the lost Armenian city of Ani have at last been unleashed to herald the renewal of dawn.