Though commercially ignored on release (and beginning descriptions of recordings this way usually means good things are in store), Laughing Stock is now recognized as being among the definitive albums of the 1990s. There are definitely different stages in Talk Talk’s oeuvre. Early on, they were an above-average pop group. By the time Spirit of Eden came about, they were making art music removed from the usual progressions.
Searching testaments in Mark Hollis’ vocals find new expressions of timeworn themes. Hollis anchors this disc, as studio musicians lend much to Laughing Stock. Multi-instrumentalist Tim Friese-Greene stirs the pot enough to have the album invigorating throughout.
Sounds are layered to the point that horns and pianos appear only for seconds at a time, and even then becoming only barely audible. The orchestral backing accentuates the ambient qualities while also resonating with the natural textures. In all these songs, Talk Talk derive a new way of recording pop music, one that takes painstaking effort to build layered, evolving tonal canvases that practically “waste” the sounds of the instruments by putting so much detail into music that ends up being comparatively spare. There is very little structure. You cannot point to some essential core of the album and say, “this is Laughing Stock.” It suggests more than just itself. It remains like an untranslated, intensely introspective piece of one great, total mystery. To forgive, to accept, to die, to love; these are the preoccupations Talk Talk take up. They go where the stakes are high indeed.
“Ascension Day” has rhythmic guitar washes enveloped in a near-hypnotic wall of sound. The foreboding flow of the lyrics (“Bet I’ll be damned/ Get’s harder to sense to sail/ Farewell fare well”) assumes a humble wonder that probes even the darkest possibilities. These painful first steps lead to richer realizations. “After the Flood” has the obscured vocals building a new, calmer state. It creates a fresh palette. Guiding are the gentle organ harmonies and sweetened drum licks punctuated with a long, distorted run from the harmonica. Talk Talk build rhythmic pulses into a living canvas. Wading through a vision of some kind of a den of sin, Hollis constantly seeks some general apocalypse from which he could be reborn. “Taphead” drives deep into the themes of rebirth and enlightenment. “New Grass” then continues the uplifting feeling with its softly slurred guitar lines.
Laughing Stock is so unique and developed that it reaffirms the human power to survive the wear of day-to-day life. Disconnects can be healed. Listen to Laughing Stock when everything is dark. Listen to it again in bright sunshine after waking. Laughing Stock is attuned to both the wandering emptiness of night and the building glory of the morning.