Laughing Stock

Talk Talk

Universal, 1991

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Few bands in music history have had such an astonishing growth in skill and ambition as Talk Talk.

Most people only know the band from their one ‘80s hit “It’s My Life” and maybe “Talk Talk,” and they were seemingly yet another synth-pop New Wave band destined to be forgotten except on VH1 Classic and gaudy Rhino/K-Tel compilations. But the band quietly got better with each release, and their final effort, Laughing Stock, is not only their best but one of the best ‘90s albums that nobody listened to except for the fine folks at Pitchfork (who ranked it #11 on their Best Albums of the Decade list).

There is not one second that you listen to this and know this was a pop band from the ‘80s. Every minute of Laughing Stock is forward thinking, trading in atmospheric, hypnotic mood pieces with jazz and electronica flavors, not to mention the classical musicians that help fill the spaces. It’s difficult to listen to the more popular mid-‘90s bands in this same vein (Portishead and the like) and not think they owe something to this album.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The complex beauty of the music means it requires patience and the listener to be alone to fully absorb it. This was never a disc that would gain widespread/mainstream acceptance, but neither is it inaccessible or haughty (except maybe the second half of “Taphead,” which floats off in a mist). The disc is wholly experimental, with nothing in the way of hooks, verses or traditional structures, which is either appealing or annoying.

“After The Flood” is the strongest song of the six, a clenched, swirling windstorm of emotions, low organ wails and fuzzed-out, dissonant guitar on top of jazzy cymbal-heavy drum patterns. There’s no use deciphering Mark Hollis’ lyrics, but his Peter Gabriel-esque voice is more of an equal instrument than a focal point. There’s little else like this song in popular music.

Successfully recording an album like this means that the songs have to have something to hook the listener, even if it’s not anything conventional, and the times where this one just meanders (the second part of “Taphead,” “Myrrhman”) are a drag on an otherwise stellar album. “Ascension Day” is another highlight, using clanging alt-rock guitar figures alongside bebop drums and maintaining an off-kilter groove for six minutes before just stopping cold, like someone sliced the tape with a razorblade.

“New Grass” is the counterpoint to “After The Flood,” riding the same light-jazz drum beat slowed to a crawl, then slowly alternating between guitars, synths and high-pitched organ, with Hollis’ keening, Christian-inspired vocals on top. It’s thoughtful and moody but offers an air of hope. “Runeii” closes on a somber, sparse note, threatening to crumble at any moment; it is the most serious group of notes you’ll ever hear (calling it a song doesn’t work because it flirts with the notions of what even constitutes a “song”), and it’s kind of a bummer.

Still, Laughing Stock completely wipes out the band’s past and ends its career with a melancholy, graceful hymn of originality.

Rating: B

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