‘Laughing Stock’: The Timeless Appeal Of Talk Talk’s Final Album
Audacious and forward-looking, Talk Talk’s final album, ‘Laughing Stock,’ remains one of the most stunning creations in all of music.
Guided by their single-minded frontman, Mark Hollis, Talk Talk recorded a trio of career-defining albums during the late 80s and early 90s. The band hit on a winning formula in 1986 with the sublime The Colour Of Spring, but they took a radical turn into leftfield with 1988’s Spirit Of Eden and traveled even further out on 1991’s otherworldly Laughing Stock.
Widely regarded as Talk Talk’s holy trinity, these singular, pigeonhole-defying albums are thrown into even sharper relief when you consider that EMI initially marketed Hollis’ team as a glossy, synth-pop act akin to labelmates Duran Duran. However, after the Top 40 success of 1982’s The Party’s Over and 1984’s It’s My Life, Hollis asserted creative control for The Colour Of Spring: a gloriously-realized widescreen pop record which spawned the band’s two signature hits, “Life’s What You Make It” and “Living In Another World.”
A groundbreaking album
Talk Talk’s commercial peak, The Colour Of Spring yielded worldwide chart success and sales of over two million. However, the band shunned such materialistic concerns for 1988’s Spirit Of Eden, which was edited down to six tracks from hours of studio improvisation by Hollis and producer/musical foil, Tim Friese-Greene.
A truly groundbreaking album flecked with rock, jazz, classical and ambient music, Spirit Of Eden attracted critical acclaim and cracked the UK Top 20, but Mark Hollis remained adamant that Talk Talk wouldn’t be touring the record. After dealing with time-consuming business-related issues, the band then left EMI and recorded their final album, Laughing Stock, for legendary jazz imprint Verve Records.
As manager Keith Aspden told The Quietus in 2013, Verve offered Hollis and co the opportunity to further embrace the experimental approach they’d adopted while piecing Spirit Of Eden together. “Verve guaranteed full funding for Laughing Stock, without interference,” he said. “[The band] took full advantage of that situation and locked themselves away for the duration of the recording.”
By this stage, Talk Talk was ostensibly a studio-based project centered upon Hollis and Friese-Greene, but augmented by session musicians including longterm drummer Lee Harris. As Aspden suggests, they holed up in north London’s Wessex Studios (previously the birthplace of The Clash’s London Calling) with one-time David Bowie/Bob Marley engineer Phill Brown, where they stayed for almost a year honing the six tracks that make up Laughing Stock. The methodology involved was truly arcane, with windows being blacked out, clocks removed and light sources limited to oil projectors and strobe lights in an attempt to capture the correct vibe.
“It took seven months in the studio, though we took a three-month break in the middle,” Brown recalled in 2013. “I guess from getting involved to studio recording, mixing and mastering took up a year of my time. It was a unique way to work. It took its toll on people, but gave great results.”
A quest for perfection
Brown wasn’t joking: Laughing Stock was painstakingly edited down to its 43-minute running time from a series of lengthy improvisational sessions. Hollis cited other genre-defying masterpieces such as Can’s Tago Mago, and Elvin Jones’ drumming on Duke Ellington and John Coltrane’s 1962 recording of “In A Sentimental Mood” as influences upon the album, and his quest for perfection was further fueled by his desire to capture the magic of spontaneity in the recordings.
“The silence is above everything,” he told journalist John Pidgeon at the time of the record’s release. “I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.”
Less is certainly more where Laughing Stock is concerned. Opening track “Myrrhman” commences with 15 seconds of amplifier hiss; the enigmatic closing number, “Runeii,” features swathes of ambient space; and the fascinating nine-minute centerpiece, ‘After The Flood’, is underpinned by droning, ethereal strings which only gradually drift into focus.
However, while these tracks are arguably even more minimal in design than Spirit Of Eden, they’re offset by more quixotic songs such as “Ascension Day” and “Taphead,” which make sudden, jarring leaps from gentle, quasi-ambience to rushes of coruscating noise. Taken as a whole, Laughing Stock can initially be a disorienting listen, but with repeated plays its bewitching beauty steadily seeps out, perhaps nowhere more so than on “New Grass,” the record’s most bucolic and linear-sounding track, which alone is worth anyone’s price of admission.
A poignant swansong
Housed in a memorable sleeve designed by long-term collaborator James Marsh, Laughing Stock was first released by Verve on September 16, 1991. Even though it didn’t contain a radio-friendly single or support from live shows, the album still briefly sneaked into the UK Top 30. With little fuss, Talk Talk disbanded shortly after, with Mark Hollis later releasing one final understated masterpiece, his self-titled 1998 solo album. Sadly, it proved to be the last album bearing his stamp before his untimely death, aged 64, on 25 February 2019.
As is often the case with forward-looking artistic statements, Laughing Stock polarized critical opinion on release. However, a few of the more perceptive reviews, such as Q’s (“It might put Talk Talk heavily at odds with the commercial charts… but it will be valued long after such superficial quick thrills are forgotten”) proved prescient, as the album’s reputation has grown steadily with the passing of time. In recent years, artists as disparate as UNKLE, Elbow, and Bon Iver have sung Laughing Stock’s praises, and it’s not hard to hear why. This bold, indefinable record is both a poignant swansong and very possibly Talk Talk’s crowning glory.
September 16, 2019 at 8:54 pm
I have listened to this album all the way through at least 300 times.
Such a unique achievement to record a quiet, deeply artistic album with no chance of return-on-investment,
AND have a record label pay for it!
May 10, 2020 at 10:09 am
Fantastic record; beautiful and strange. I still think they COULD have toured it. They could have arranged it for a jazz nonet – imagine!
But nothing is untourable or unplayable live :just needs arranging is all – Miles toured Bitches and Heads toured Remain in Light.
I know they didn’t want to. ..but it could have been done
January 16, 2021 at 1:24 pm
This and Spirit of Eden are two of the greatest albums ever laid to tape. I completely understand how they took the ultimate toll that they did on the creative force that penned them. I have searched for albums that illicit the same emotion and feel that they evoke with zero results. Mark Hollis’ solo album and Talk Talk’s “The Colour Of Spring” are the only things that come remotely close and even those two efforts are worlds away from what the aforementioned records achieve. When one listens to either of these albums and truly let’s their guard down, it allows a plethora of emotions to brim and overflow. I am always left a bit saddened to know that there will never be anything that ever comes close to their regal perfection ever again.
December 9, 2021 at 10:55 pm
The only album that I can remotely compare to this in terms of an artistic fuck you to record companies and the machine, also took place in the ’90’s. And is in some ways just as great an artistic statement in popular music.
If you know you know. Shuddertothink. Pony Express record.
I love Laughing stock beyond measure, I really do, but PXR is up there. If you haven’t heard and digested it, you are missing out. It’s very much more a rock record, but deserves to be considered alongside LS
December 10, 2021 at 7:05 pm
I have tried and tried to get on with Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, such is my love for Colour of Spring which I have played over and over on different formats for years, but I just cannot get there. I bought each of these other two on vinyl upon their release and all these years later just have not been able to enjoy them despite endless tries. Personal taste is just that I guess. Best not to fight it. Thankfully at least John Grant agreed with me in his BBC6 interview but many other people who I admire don’t!