The first time I heard Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It”, taken from their 1986 album The Colour of Spring, I was in a hotel room in Perth, Ontario. I was going to attend a wedding nearby the next day, and I was watching the video. Before this, I knew of Talk Talk mostly through another video and song of theirs – “It’s My Life”. But, I was fascinated by this song and its accompanying video too. The song is built on a simple, central rhythm track as played on the piano, accompanied by a tenacious back beat. The heavy left-hand chords that are the engine of the song – plodding, yet also compelling – providing an unlikely hook. It’s like a song that is ready to start, to kick off into a torrent of rage, yet never does. The tension of that is extremely powerful. This was the direction that singer Mark Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Green were moving in at the time; creating music which incorporates a sense of space, moving away from the agendas of pop music. The two would go on to craft what is considered to be their masterpiece under the Talk Talk moniker, the 1988 album The Spirit of Eden, which was even more minimalist in approach.
Also, I am always struck by the guitar riff in this song, played by hotshot session guy David Rhodes, who among other items on his resume had built a pretty impressive track record while playing with another one of my heroes, Peter Gabriel. I can never decide on how to describe the riff; it’s both jagged and ferocious, as well as being kind of ethereal and echoey. I don’t know. Maybe that’s why it is so compelling – it’s both.
Check out this clip, and judge for yourself.
The lyrics, if taken literally, can be seen as a truncated motivational speech. Yet you get the impression that there are levels of irony at work here, perhaps down to Hollis’ mournful-yet-desperate delivery. There is darkness and pain to be mined here, below the surface of the key phrase which, in the end, is not really defined as being positive or negative. You get the impression that because of this, there is a certain emotional numbness at work here, that understanding that life’s what you make it, doesn’t necessarily mean that the energy is there to make it something good.
This remains to be one of my favourite songs by anyone, built as it is on some very basic fundamentals of the best in pop music – texture, distinctiveness, and with several levels of emotional connection emanating from some mysterious place which seem to be operating all at once.