Laughing Stock Reissue
(Polydor/Ba Da Bing!; 1991/2011)
By Chet Betz | 4 November 2011
It’s kind of hard for me to talk about Talk Talk. I remember, years ago, friend and colleague Eric Sams asked me to my face how I could say that Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock are my two favorite albums of all time (I put Laughing Stock on top but can’t really separate the two), and I think I managed a few sentences before choking back something that felt like my soul. Though it’s the opposite of what we usually strive for here at the Glow, think of this review as a recommendation, not a piece of actual criticism. The latter would take me more than a minute. And probably more than typing.
If the six-song cycle of Spirit of Eden creates a metaphysical subtext for the book of Genesis, then the six-song cycle of Laughing Stock is a jump cut forward to the New Testament (c’mon, “Myrrhman”? “Ascension Day”?) and beyond. There’s still that connection between “The Rainbow” and “After the Flood,” the parallel drawn cross-testament to God’s greatest promises of hope to man, and then the sublime “New Grass” brings us to a summit to look down on a verdant valley with a New Jerusalem. And we look with new eyes, new skin and flesh on our bones, a regenerated soul stirring within. I’m not exaggerating. For me art at its highest is like this, this insightful deconstruction of the myths that bind us, delineating the essential from the literal; it is the most true arc of the spiritual, the launching point being all of our origins and the stories thereof, the leap from that basis being a bold stab into the heart of the unknown—our inmost selves. For while it’s a gross understatement to say that the cosmos dwarf us and our supposed significance, they may also serve as a universal mirror of some divine spark within us. In cinema Tarkovsky was rigorous in expressing these ideas through various narratives and symbols while shrouding them in an ambiguity, an awe-filled mystery that was as honest as the truths he underlined. In music I’d say Mark Hollis, the head of Talk Talk, is the closest equivalent.
And there’s an emotional heft here that shouldn’t be slept on. Every time I hear Mark Hollis cry out, offering up his freedom in thanks for “a sacred love” on Spirit of Eden closer “Wealth,” there’s a calm elation—like slowly waking to a brilliant sunbeam pulsing through a crack in the blinds. Every time I hear the long sigh of that solemn sustain—an unexpected murmur of wind—at the end of Laughing Stock opener “Myrrhman,” tears pool. The tapestry this music weaves is rife with iconography, knowing that the iconic when rendered with great artistry has a resonance that can level all cognitive and cultural barriers.
In many ways Tarkovsky’s technique and aesthetic defined his content; he was an absolute master of the long-take and this mastery was part and parcel with his philosophy of “sculpting in time” as the fullest potential of filmmaking. In similar fashion Talk Talk’s music possesses a sort of incomparable patience and fluidity; I think we tend to think of music as an art possessing great inherent continuity with its flow of overlapping components—and Talk Talk’s last two albums are the exceptional examples that expose the lie in our perception. Even the best electronica sounds like it’s playing techno Tetris with Pro Tools blocks compared to these long-form analog compositions that intertwine their threads delicately, finding integrity in a sort of vulnerability while also managing to play off of and subvert traditional song structures and dynamics, pinching music theory on the cheek or even pulling it by the ear (one-note guitar solo, anyone?). Tim Friese-Greene’s production is immaculate, each sound distinct, rich, and purely fertile in the way it pushes the compositions to develop without becoming entangled or overgrown messes.
The end results are songs that can’t be called tracks but maybe then not even “songs,” if songcraft really is all about creating lil’ self-contained works meant to emphasize strong melodies and/or lyrical wit. Instead, Talk Talk show us how they walk their walk, not just talk it; the very grace of their music’s movement demonstrates that pits and plateaus don’t always lead to peaks (but sometimes), that life can often seem static when it actually defies stasis through the elegance of the cyclical and the elliptical (“Taphead,” holy shit), and that we can exist in the moment but only insomuch as we realize that the moment is simultaneously ephemeral and eternal.
Reduction, refraction, reincarnation of the music canon is a symptom of this lean on recurrence; whole genres are mere chromosomes in Talk Talk’s DNA. In Lee Harris’ drums there rumbles jazz whittled down into cretacean backbones; in the music’s preternatural feel for use of negative space lies a sensibility to rival the best of the avant-garde; in its symphonic compositions a minimalist approach to classicist grandeur, epitomizing the 20th century and its trends towards dissonance and modality; in its sound editing and post-production arrangement a prescience for hip-hop and electronica; in the variety and reach of its instrumentation a sort of concentrated, Europe-centric world music; in its blasts of harmonica the roots of blues; in its keys, ambient; and with its guitar comes a keen understanding of the power of the occasional bit of distortion. There is also cowbell and it rocks, absolutely. Mark Hollis’ tremulous voice carries the aching sentiment of pop music; his words read like the most poetic and cryptic of Scriptures, displaced in time by Renaissance and relativity. The organism this DNA creates is of its sources transcendent, a term I’ll now retire in my music criticism as I realize that no record really deserves “transcendent” the way these records do. But there’s so much to this music that no terminology can really hope to touch.
“Can’t put into words” is always a cop-out but know that beneath this (relatively) scant writing lies a massive number of things that go unsaid, what feels like a lifetime of listening to these records and being moved by them to a place beyond words. And yet we go on trying to find some way to express the ineffable. This is why a masterpiece like Laughing Stock, my bona fide favorite album ever, exists in the first place. If the music of the spheres is the ideal, Talk Talk’s final records and the Mark Hollis solo album are the music of the immediate matter touched by those spheres, the gleaming dark in between, irradiated into beautiful, broken harmony—trying to speak of something that can’t be spoken. You, listener, have a choice: admire this music from afar…or really open up to it and allow the glow it reflects to seep into your pores. Listen to this music and be impressed, or listen to this music and be transformed. I recommend the latter.