TALK TALK – Laughing Stock (1991)

Written as a “Designated Champion” essay for the Best Album Of The 90s tournament on Twitter.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. It’s 1991 and there’s this band, minor in their genre but well-liked, with a publicity-shy but visionary leader who’s gradually reinvented their sound until it’s something wholly fresh. They go into the studio to make a new album, but the process is creatively arduous and financially atrocious. Innovation and perfectionism combine to take the band to their limits and the label to the brink of bankruptcy. The LP, when released, is a masterpiece, massively influential but also unrepeatable. The band implodes and nothing more is heard from their leader for years.

This is the story of Loveless, the record which has been seeded as favourite to win the Best Album of the 90s tournament. But it’s also the story of Laughing Stock, a record which I pulled out of a list of contenders to have another doomed tilt at glory. While MBV eventually returned, and Shields, thank goodness, survived to see his and Loveless’ reputation grow and grow, Talk Talk and Mark Hollis have a sadder story. 

The band fell apart, commercial pariahs and broken by the vagaries of Laughing Stock’s creative process. Hollis dropped out of sight, returned to release one fine, enigmatic record of hushed sketches then retired for good, sadly and suddenly dying a few years back, firmly out of the public eye. Talk Talk are still best known for the mid-point of their evolution, the churning synth-prog grandeur of “Life’s What You Make It”. While you can hear traces of Laughing Stock in post-rock ever since, the album, their last and best, remains a strictly cult favourite.

Which is how its devotees like it, frankly. You hear from old heads sometimes about how Trout Mask Replica forced them to learn a new way of listening to music, unpicking their expectations of song stitch by absurd stitch. Something similar happened to me with Laughing Stock, when I first heard it sometime in 1992. It happened, I’ve since learned, to a lot of other people. 

This is music where long, near-silent passages of scattered notes or half-phrases suddenly erupt briefly into structure; where mumbled invocations sit next to lucid, touching snatches of lyric; where aching orchestral beauty struggles to get a foothold, is replaced by ugly blocks of guitar, only for those too to fall away into abstraction.

“Ascension Day” is just about a song. “Taphead” threatens to become one, before its fragile acoustic picking drifts into a sea of woodwind reeds and is lost in marshy cries and electronic undertow. (When Hollis keens his way back into the track in his higher register, one sound in the background is surely Thom Yorke taking frantic notes: come back to this in 10 years). “Myrhhman” is a featureless moorland punctuated by blurts of guitar like unsheltering trees and rocks: it ends with the record’s manifesto – “Step right up – something’s happening here”. “New Grass” is motorik pastoral, uncomplicatedly pretty, complicatedly sad, Hollis rocking himself to comfort in the middle. Not sure I’m hearing a single here, lads.

One of the remarkable things about Laughing Stock is that it sounds, in places, like humans jamming in a room together, maybe vibing off each other, perhaps having a “good time”. Little could be further from the truth. By the accounts of those involved, making the record was agonised, studio madness of a kind perhaps only Brian Wilson would fully recognise. Like many perfectionist artists, Hollis demanded take upon take upon take. But unlike them, what his band and hired hands were playing weren’t songs, but fragments, jams, snatches of disconnected music, like actors being made to record every word in a scene on different days. 

Laughing Stock is a pointillist record, assembled from this endless, useless studio labour by Hollis and producer Tim Friese-Greene. A mosaic of music, precisely arranged to give the impression of musicians responding to each other’s creative choices in real time, when they’re all moving parts in Hollis’ shadow theatre. But what a performance we’re given.

Come at it another way, bring to bear the full critical armoury of comparison. There are lots of things Laughing Stock is a bit like.

It’s a bit like Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way – early 70s Miles Davis also involves a lot of tape splicing and collage, and the comparison was actually what got me into Miles (“at last! Another record that sounds like Laughing Stock!”)

It’s a bit like The Rite Of Spring – an attempt to wrestle an orchestra and unlock its wildness, its connection to the earth.

It’s a bit like (in its more rhythmic moments) Can, Faust, Popol Vuh – rhythm as the accomplice in a derangement of song.

It’s a bit like wind and wet earth, a walk alone through wild places.

It’s a bit like Talk Talk’s earlier Spirit Of Eden, which sounds to me like a too-polite dress rehearsal for this, and sounds to some other people like Hollis got these ideas right the first time, thanks.

It’s a bit like Tim Buckley’s Lorca and Starsailor LPs – Hollis doesn’t have Buckley’s cosmic pipes but the approach to folk/rock vocalising isn’t too far off in its far outness.

It’s a bit like playing an open world game and finding that over time terrifying surprises become familiar, even comforting landmarks.

It’s a bit like a host of artists that came soon or later after – Bark Psychosis, These New Puritans, bits of Jim O’Rourke, 90s Scott Walker. It’s still echoing today. I love some of those people but I like Laughing Stock more than any of them.

Mostly though it’s only like itself. If you love it already, enjoy hearing it again. If not, I hope you find a way into it this time.