Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Talk Talk - Laughing Stock

Talk Talk
Laughing Stock

Released 1991 on Verve (Polydor)
Reviewed by Lord Lucan, 11/07/2000ce

Most accounts of Talk Talk’s history mark this, their final album, as pretty much just a footnote. In my opinion it is one of rock music’s most unfairly overlooked albums, but that may be because it stretches the definition of ‘rock’ music itself. If you remember the Talk Talk of those 80’s synth-pop tunes you are miles away from imagining what this album sounds like: There’s no ‘Life Is What You Make It’ here.

Much had conspired to mutate this group into an unrecognisable incarnation of the 80’s model. The band’s listening habits seem to have suddenly taken a sharp left turn and the sound-world of people like Can, Miles Davis and John Cage had started to leak into their own work. If this all brings to mind a certain Mr Sylvian’s development, then the similarities are there. It’s just that Talk Talk were doing it so much more on their own terms and significantly sounding more soulful with it. Mark Hollis somehow sounds humble, while Sylvian’s vision is much more egocentric. Hollis’s voice sounds like he’s reluctantly sharing his innermost thoughts and is almost uncomfortable putting them into words.

The music here is lush, but sparse at the same time. Each instrument is engineered to give up it’s most beautiful sounds, but the notes played are minimised. It’s as if the master tapes have been left near a magnet and most of what was actually played has been erased, leaving the mind to fill in the gaps: The first 20 seconds of the CD version are tape hiss. The instrumentation on ‘Myrrman’, which includes wind and string sections, recalls Miles Davis’s ‘Sketches of Spain’, but we’re in much more nebulous territory here. The air is being gently and meticulously coloured with sound. Then ‘Ascension Day’ crashes in with a loud guitar line before setting us down into a Liebezeit-alike cymbal-heavy drum groove with surges of one of the most gorgeous organ sounds committed to record. That guitar keeps crashing in and eventually builds up to a mighty crescendo which never happens, because the whole thing is rudely edited and stops leaving the ears ringing, only to be gently settled with an organ drift-piece called ‘After the Flood’. Mark Hollis’s voice has got to be one of the most effortlessly beautiful male voices in music, but with the restraint to avoid histrionics at all costs. That’s pretty much the rub with this album: the best sounds and melodies aren’t repeated – blink and you miss them. In more clumsy (or commercially aware!) hands whole songs would be built around the repetition of these moments. ‘Taphead’ is simply a guitar being intermittently picked with Mark singing in his near-whisper, hinting at the style he would later pursue on his recent solo album. Then we’re in ‘Spirit of Eden’ territory: all the instruments hint at a blues but are just on the verge of dissonance. It’s a delicate balancing act. ‘New Grass’ strikes a note of optimism and marks the track most approaching what most people would call a properly fleshed-out song. We’re in redemption territory now, a recurring theme in music made by smackheads (see: Spiritualised, Velvet Underground’s third album, Dr John…). ‘Runeii’ is a simple guitar and piano tune with a whispered, almost hidden vocal. This actually reminds me of the quiet bits on ‘Neu!75’ or Eno’s ‘Another Green World’, but in atmosphere rather than sonic resemblance.

Then it’s gone…just 6 tracks over just 40 minutes. Modest and pearl-like in its deceptive simplicity. I have to say it’s a shame it’s packaged in one of those horrible Athena print sleeves that Talk Talk persisted in using, though.

‘Spirit of Eden’ seems to be perceived by critics as the greater artistic achievement of the two, but good as that album is I think ‘Laughing Stock’ marks a significant maturity of what they had discovered they were capable of with ‘Spirit of Eden’. It’s inevitable really that the group would go on to solo work after this. The only other option would have been to repeat themselves; not something their record company could have stomached anyway given the commercial failure of this record. The post-Talk Talk discs are also worth investigating, particularly Mark Hollis’s eponymous album and Orang’s ‘Herd of Instinct’

As artist Peter Schmidt once said: ‘In a room full of shouting people the one who is whispering becomes the most interesting.’ The only problem I’ve found with this record over the years is what to follow it with. Nothing seems appropriate except silence.

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