The Absurdity of 'Laughing Stock'
At the end of the '80s, the idea that Talk Talk would be one of the defining bands of the decade would've seemed absurd. If you'd added the caveat that they'd break up in 1991 after releasing the most commercially unsuccessful album of their careers, that idea would become completely and utterly unbelievable.
But so history will remember Laughing Stock, the fifth and final album for the English outfit. It marked the culmination of their career, a crowning moment that played as both celebratory coronation and sad, staring-into-the-abyss end.
The Talk Talk narrative began somewhere quite different. The band began life as a kind of B-Grade Duran Duran, all blow-waved new-wave hair and hopeful/hopeless Roxy Music imitations. They were, in such, commercially successful; the promise of their synthy boy-band-isms finding a foothold on 1982's The Party's Over, then coming of age on the anthemic, oh-so-New-Romantic It's My Life.
The Artistic Spirit
The turning point came with their third LP, The Colour of Spring. Perhaps inspired by Japan, whose leader David Sylvian had taken them from foppish twits to Can collaborations within a few short years, Talk Talk began pushing beyond the pop paradigm. Influence was drawn from prog-rock, art-rock, psychedelia, free-jazz; though there was a commercial sheen and fondness for melody than stayed. The album became their biggest seller, convincing leader Mark Hollis that they could grow more adventurous without sacrificing sales.
As they pushed further —and, on 1988's ambitious, ambient Spirit of Eden, they chased their dreams in audio excess— members were shed, and 'duties' were shirked. After declining to tour behind Spirit of Eden, Talk Talk were let go by their label, EMI. And, by the time they got to working on what would be Laughing Stock, they were less 'band' that Hollis's studio project; a chance for him to —with the aid of producer/multi-instrumentalist Tim Friese-Greene— chase his perfectionist dreams; and make music that was defiantly art.
With the power of hindsight, Laughing Stock is seen as a key text in the development of post-rock. It doesn't sound much like the Godspeed!-ian clichés of imaginary movie soundtracks, wordless artiness, and massive shifts to gathered, storm-cloud crescendos. But, in its most spartan moments, the record is a work of tone and texture, not melody and forwardness; creating a hazy oasis slightly 'back' from the listener, then slowly and surely luring them in.
The songs play more as suggestions-of-songs; instead, it's everything that's surrounding them that matters. It's, I suppose, akin to taking the focus from the figures in the foreground back to the entire painted landscape; being less concerned with character-driven dialogue than the entire mise-en-scène.
Each composition is effectively an aural environment, and to listen to something like "New Grass," the album's near-ten-minute penultimate track, is to feel within them. Where 'studio perfection' usually seems to mean working on compressing the whole for commercial gain —Trevor Horn or Phil Collins creating airless, artless mausoleums of artistic death— here perfection is the realization that every silence is golden, and every sound cutting into it needs to be worthwhile, meaningful. In turn, every hiss of cymbal, scrape of viola string, attack of strummed guitar, and cumulative trail and decay is treated with reverence; as if Hollis and Friese-Greene were playing God, authoring the universe.
Lyrically, Laughing Stock is filled with religion; "Seven sacraments to song," Hollis murmurs, voice a tentative tremble, amidst "New Grass." "Versed in Christ/should strength desert me." Though "Heaven waits," Hollis sounds like a man forever unsure; someone not taking solace from simple, blind faith, but peering into the hereafter and finding no answers.
The Last Laugh
So, in short: a laborious studio-concoction of quasi-spiritual musings and orchestral knottiness that —in 1991, The Year Punk Broke— must've played to grunge kids like a wafting breeze from old art-rock farts. The last dying gasp of a band that started out as glorified haircuts, only to retreat further into melancholy navel-gazing.
Reviews for the album, back in the day, did tend towards acclaim; this was not a case of a band being denied in their time. But it was Talk Talk's least-successful album, by far; and with Hollis burnt out on tilting at sonic windmills and their touring days long done, there was little future for Talk Talk at the time.
But, oh, how that future has unfolded with nary a new note needed. Time has been kind to this daffy, dreamer's LP. Its mix of environmental consciousness, existential angst, experimental song structure, and warbling vocals has begat Radiohead, Sigur Rós, Antony and the Johnsons, Wild Beasts, Bon Iver.
Record Label: Verve
Release Date: September 16, 1991