Emptiness. Dissonance. Hopelessness. Beauty. Chaos. Reclusiveness. Introspection. Triumph. Ambiguity. Stuff. Things. And so on.
Adding to the pleasure of listening to Talk Talk’s classic albums for the first time is the fact that I can get pretentious as I want to with them and I’ll have a million rabid fans ready to defend my every word. Not that I find Talk Talk particularly pretentious, of course (in fact, I hate the word so much I hesitate to apply it to ANY artist, even ones that really deserve it), as mentioned in my Spirit of Eden review it’s their humility that gets to me, since it makes the moments of transcendence stick out all the more.
But let’s dispense with the pretensions. I do not like Laughing Stock as much as Spirit of Eden. Never in a billion, trillion years. I understand why so many people single it out as their favorite, but there are at least two overall aspects of its philosophy that, while far from damning problems, place it lower on my personal preference pedestal.
The first is its emphasis on chaos and spontaneity. I don’t mind improvisation (I can listen to most jazz just fine), and the idea of a Talk Talk album packaged in a perfectionisticly overdubbed, but still mostly improvised environment is a good one, bringing their obvious jazz influences front and center (most of Spirit of Eden was improv as well, albeit more heavily edited). These improvised compositions, along with written melodies and atmospheric sound effects, give Laughing Stock and incredibly unique and chaotic feel. My issue is that this chaos is never really channeled into anything. There’s nothing resembling the subtle melodic weavings of Spirit of Eden, reducing the vocal hooks to absolutely trivial status. More problematically, it doesn’t feel much like a coherent, moment-to-moment journey. Each song has a tone that obviously moves the album along, and they’ve finally picked up on more proto-crescendocore, but actually listening to the album gives a far less satisfying sense of progress then its younger sister. Laughing Stock is less like an album and more like a collection of songs, which saddens me.
The second issue has to do with this aimlessness: the album is simply far too bleak. I know some people will tilt their noses at me for saying that, lumping me in with the same narrow-minded “I don’t like it because it’s not my style” people I’ve tried to avoid becoming with my own personal guidelines, but as a package of complete and rewarding emotion, Laughing Stock absolutely pales in comparison to Spirit of Eden. It’s not that it doesn’t have a happy ending, it’s that it barely has an ending at all, and the ambiguity isn’t interesting enough to at least make me like it intellectually. Laughing Stock simply does not reach its full potential either on a moment-to-moment basis or an overall basis.
But let’s not kid ourselves here, this is all intellectual and has to do with my personal feelings, not objective fact. On a pure musical level, Laughing Stock is absolutely brilliant. The slow improvisations are engaging, the setups and payoffs are wonderful to behold, and the sound effects are both jarringly bizarre (even unnerving) and perfectly placed. The sheer number of awe-inspiringly beautiful and brain-twistingly gonzo moments on here is staggering.
Like Spirit of Eden, it’s also remarkably consistent. There’s nothing on it as brilliant as the one-two-three punch of “The Rainbow/Eden/Desire”, but the ultra-sparse beauty of the opener “Myrrhman” and unpredictable weirdness of “After the Flood” are certainly worthy attention grabbers. The best of these opening three is the satisfyingly gorgeous rise and fall of “Ascension Day”, a song whose constant humming reverence moves me more than anything else on the album.
The double package of “Taphead” and “New Grass” comes close, though. “Taphead” is by far the album’s darkest song, even if you could argue its minimalism doesn’t carry evocations of anything beyond nervousness. But dangit, nervousness can be really psychologically oppressive. While Spirit of Eden used its distance to communicate something wonderful just out of reach, “Taphead” uses its distance to give the feeling of hiding from some far-off darkness in a cramped space of questionable hiding value. It is truly and deeply unnerving. “New Grass” completely destroys that fear with rays of pure hope and color, creating perfect catharsis. These two songs complete and reflect on each other so well that I’m not sure why the album isn’t ended with them.
The actual conclusion, “Runeii”, is far less satisfying and leaves the album in a bit of a weird place of emptiness. I can see why this would be considered by many to be a good thing, but it’s no “Wealth.” Thankfully, it’s engaging and atmospheric while it lasts.
I know my praise won’t do much to placate massive fans of this album who can’t stand that I’ve denied it a perfect score for completely personal reasons, but let’s be clear: Laughing Stock is a top-tier, mesmerizing, absolutely unique, technically fascinating, atmospherically brilliant, relentlessly memorable album. It’s a wonderful, absolutely essential piece of music and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for a second. I just happen to like unabashed beauty and melancholy better then ambiguous confusion and awe. That’s the great thing about the Talk Talk I’ve heard so far: they’ve got something for every disposition and emotional pallet. Yay diversity!
Thematic Content: 3/5
Experience: Being the last leaf to fall from the tree.
9/10. Best Song: Ascension Day. Or maybe New Grass.