1988’s Spirit of Eden saw the British band Talk Talk completely abandon their early 1980s new wave sound altogether for a more atmospheric yet organic sound that was hinted with their third album in 1986’s The Colour of Spring. While many felt that Spirit of Eden was ahead of its time in terms of creating the post-rock genre, the album drew mixed reviews from critics while the band’s label EMI was unhappy about the record as a two-year battle over contractual issues happened. While Talk Talk was able to free themselves from the label, they were unhappy about EMI releasing a best-of compilation to commercial success in 1990.
The band signed a two-album deal with Polydor and Verve for their next release though it would be a bittersweet moment when longtime bassist Paul Webb chose to leave the band. With the band a studio outfit for vocalist Mark Hollis and longtime collaborator/producer Tim Friese-Greene with drummer Lee Harris on board. Talk Talk went back to the studio in 1990 with engineer Phill Brown, who had worked with the band on Spirit of Eden, as they hired more session musicians for the recording. Taking more than a year to record due to Hollis’ perfectionist tendencies and his attempts to set the mood for the recording with candles and incense in darkened rooms. The band would finally unveil their fifth and final album entitled Laughing Stock.
Produced by Tim Friese-Greene and songs written by Friese-Greene and Mark Hollis, Laughing Stock takes the sound of Spirit of Eden to a much more minimalist yet experimental approach. Featuring a sparser yet more intricate production and a free-flowing approach to instrumentation, the album is a more atmospheric piece than Spirit of Eden while continuing on its exploration towards religious themes. With the music featuring more guitars, jazz melodies, and classical styles, the overall result would be a landmark album for the era of alternative music and a key pillar for the emerging post-rock genre.
The album opener Myrrhman is a reflective ballad led by smooth guitar strums, a soothing trumpet, low-key violins, and a soft yet hollow drum track in the background. Mark Hollis croons through the song’s lyrics that yearns for salvation as the track is a calm yet meditative piece that crosses the world of jazz and classical. The mid-tempo yet intense Ascension Day arrives with Lee Harris’ steady yet metallic drum fills and calm guitar arpeggios as the track becomes more visceral with its dissonant guitar riffs and Hollis’ haunting vocals. The song’s lyrics feature a lot of religious ideas of damnation and repent as a swooning organ and wailing harmonica follows as the performance of the instrument becomes menacing as it features screeching violins and a trumpet in the mix.
The nine-minute, thirty-nine second After the Flood starts off with a brief piano piece with swirling guitar sounds as Harris’ bopping yet steady drum fill arrives in a throbbing, jazz-like rhythm. Featuring a quiet organ and Hollis’ crooning vocals, the song delves into the despair of the world filled with sin as Hollis yearns for goodness to come. With a harmonica, tearing guitar noises, and sprinkling percussions, the song is a complex yet mesmerizing piece that feels a lot shorter than its running time suggests. Taphead opens with a slow yet low guitar melody as Hollis softly sings to the song’s life-based lyrics on death and resurrection as guitars spurt throughout. With an ambient-driven sound of organs, violins, and a trumpet playing through the song, a heavy yet low harmonica blares through as Hollis continues to sing in a softer vocal.
New Grass, a nine-minute and forty-second cut, is an enchanting song with smooth, pulsating drum fills and lush guitar strums that is followed by a swooning organ. Hollis’ quiet vocals croon through the song’s faith-driven lyrics that recalls a new world as its meditative yet minimalist tone is heightened by its evocative yet textured production and arpeggio-laden guitar melodies. The album closer is the near-five minute Runeii, which is also the shortest track on the album. Featuring a low yet slight-scratch guitar strum and a quiet organ accompaniment, Hollis sings in a low vocal register to the song’s reflective but searching lyrics as its calm yet simple performance provide a somber close to the album.
Released on September 16, 1991, exactly three years after the release of Spirit of Eden, the album peaked at #26 in the U.K. album charts and received good reviews upon its release. In the U.S. however, the album went nowhere due to the band’s commercial decline during the mid-1980s. While the album was later considered to be a landmark release for the post-rock genre, the album would be the end for Talk Talk as the group officially disbanded in 1992. Drummer Lee Harris reunited with former bassist Paul Webb to form .O.rang while longtime producer Tim Friese-Greene continued to work as a producer while creating his own project under the Heligoland banner. Mark Hollis released a self-titled solo album in 1998 to fulfill the band’s contract with Polydor as he later retired from the music industry altogether.
Laughing Stock is, without a doubt, one of the most important records in the history of popular music. While it’s an album that isn’t immediate in its delivery, repeated listens allow the album to soar into the mind while its religious lyrics aren’t overbearing but rather reflective and personal. Of the albums that Talk Talk has released, it is definitely their best album in terms of performance, production, and in ambition. It’s also one of the key albums for anyone that has interest in post-rock should start with in terms of what was done for the genre. In the end, Laughing Stock is Talk Talk’s masterpiece that remains very vital 20 years since its release.
© thevoid99 2011