The deepest truths, when said without love and compassion, become the most irritating cliches. In a song full of deep meaning and deep irony, the band Talk Talk managed to make a sympathetic and evocative song out of what is often used as a cliche for personal responsibility, taking responsibility to their own lives but doing so in a way that shows compassion for others. Even better, they manage this in a song that is far from talky, but full of plaintive singing from lead singer Mark Hollis.
The song opens up with clean drumming rhythms and an evocative piano line that are repeated throughout the driving song, along with haunting guitar lines and organ and mellotron parts added in the bridge and chorus. The first verse of the song is as follows: Baby,/ Life’s what you make it,/ Can’t escape it./ Yesterday’s favorite,/ Don’t you hate it? ” Here we see a combination of a strong stand on personal responsibility along with considerable empathy, a rare feat, economically expressed. The singer is pointing out that we can’t escape responsibility for our lives, but that a lot of us are frustrated with the perceptions of others.
This particular verse is rich in irony for the band Talk Talk. At the beginning of their career, they were known mainly for being a ripoff of Duran Duran (with a Roxy Music-inspired double name), but gradually found their own voice and became pioneers in the post-rock movement. They lost the support of their record label and a lot of their fans, but stayed true to their own vision and followed their own muse for those who were willing to follow along for the journey. For their troubles Americans consider them a one-hit wonder, for their song “It’s My Life,” their only American top 40 hit (they were more successful in their homeland, Great Britain, where they had several top 40 hits). Talk Talk had the credibility to talk about personal responsibility as well as frustration with the past and how people misjudged others, because they walked the talk.
The chorus of the song, which in lesser hands might have been overly repetitive and boring, consists of the guitar and organ, along with the piano and drums, set to the words “Everything’s alright” sung by the backup vocalist in the band, along with the song’s title “Life’s what you make it.” The point of the song is very clear. Despite the lack of explanatory words, the emotional power of the lyrics and the simple, clean, driving beat of the song makes it a very straightforward and powerful number, set to rather eerie pictures of the band in Wimbledon Common at night , or various animals like a centipede, an owl, a frog, a badger, and a fox seeking to live life in the parkland of London. Like the “It’s My Life,” video, the band and the director of the music video (the same for both songs) seem to be making a point that it is not only human life, but animal life, that is being discussed.
The second verse of the song goes as follows: “Baby,/ Life’s what you make it,/ Don’t backdate it./ Baby,/ Don’t try to shade it./ Beauty is naked.” Again, the point of this verse is very clear. We should not think of our life as predetermined by the past. We have the chance to move on and start again, to make a better second impression, or to enjoy a second chance at a good life. We should not believe our life is over because of the mistakes we have made. Then the band turns to the issue of the human tendency to justify ourselves. Rather than shading the truth or trying to justify it away, the band says, the naked truth is what is beautiful. Here we have the Christian standard of knowing the truth, because the truth sets us free of self-deception, expressed elegantly and simply, as the band pursues openness rather than secrets and lies.
Following this second verse comes the chorus, again, as well as an instrumental passage which adds a simple but hauntingly beautiful piano line along with organ and mellotron. After this comes the final verse: “Baby,/ Life’s what you make it./ Celebrate it./ Anticipate it./ Yesterday’s faded./ Nothing can change it./ Life’s what you make it.” Here we have an almost chiastic structure to the verse, with a decrescendo opening and a crescendo to close the verse. Again, the lyrics are straightforward and sung with empathy and deep emotion. We should celebrate life, look forward to it and enjoy it because there’s nothing we can do about the past. What’s done is done. We have to make the best of it. Again, the song is lived in as well as sung, not merely left for pat-sounding cliches, but sung from people who had made mistakes, and who were determined to make the best of their time on earth, and to encourage other people to do the same. After this verse the chorus is repeated, along with a live shot of Mark Hollis singing “Yeah, yeah,” while some bunnies hop across the Wimbledon commons around dawn.
So, what we have here is a deeply emotional song with a deep meaning about our personal responsibility in life, along with a great deal of sympathy for those who have seriously erred. The song is part of a near-concept song cycle called “The Colour Of Spring ,” which explores the ups and downs of love and life, and of which this song was the first and most successful single. Ironically enough, it was written by the band after most of the album was finished, as the label was concerned at the lack of an obvious single. Rather than write a pat song to fulfill contractual obligations, the band took responsibility and wrote this amazing track, combining a good hook with deep and meaningful lyrics, hauntingly beautiful music, and a solid message. The song was not a big hit in the United States, but it was influential enough to be covered by Wheezer on their Red Album as a bonus cut.
So, what we have in this not talky single from a band named Talk Talk is a beautiful but haunting song about taking responsibility and moving on from the past, learning from it but not being stuck in it. It’s a good lesson that many of us could use, and it is sung in a way which leads to empathy between the singer and listener, because it is sung without arrogance or condescension, but sung with genuine pathos and empathetic concern. It is therefore not only a good lesson in what it says, but in how the message of the song is conveyed sympathetically and compassionately. We could all learn from both the message and the way it was delivered. We are indeed responsible for our lives, but we need to be encouraged by that thought and not depressed by it.