Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Album Review: Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

This was Talk Talk’s last album, released in 1991. It continues in the neo-classical direction signposted by 1988’s Spirit of Eden and takes it even further, possibly to the point of no return. There were rumours of Hollis recording a string section for hours upon end, before only using a few misplaced notes. Not sure if it’s true but it paints a picture of a highly unconventional album.

The cover illustration features a striking image of oversized colourful birds on a leafless tree, and there only six tracks on the album, all of which are quite lengthy in duration. The album opens with faint static, before a gingerly strummed electric guitar enters, followed by cello, viola and piano. The song is Myrrhman, and Mark Hollis’ voice has never sounded so tortured and desolate yet almost hymnal, with lyrics like ‘faith one path and the second in fear’, whilst being punctuated by bursts of static, and faint trumpets and horns. It’s far away from popular music, and the track ends with gentle strings and piano.

The pace picks up with Ascension Day, which features prominent percussion and again a somewhat hesitant guitar before the drums crash in, and it continues for six minutes before ending abruptly. After the Flood drifts in on barely audible piano and organ in a similar vein to the previous track, before a change in pace with Taphead, which is very sparse, Hollis’ vocals more delicate than ever before. It’s a very tense track, with a middle portion which builds up to a horn led climax, before tailing off with some echoey guitar, bass and organ.

New Grass, the penultimate track is almost like the first shoots of spring after four tracks of winter. An intricate, almost liquid guitar enters accompanied by drums and gentle piano, and Hollis sings ‘lifted up, reflected in returning love you sing’. The album is a semi-religious experience, never more so than on this track, with its references to ‘seven sacraments to song versed in Christ’ and later ‘someday Christendom will come’, along with beautiful unadorned piano interludes. Not a note is wasted on this one.

The album finishes on a very downbeat note with Runeii, which another very sparse track, gentle ratcheting guitar playing a melody that could almost be random notes, except it resolves itself into a recognisable pattern.

The album sold poorly, and there was silence from Hollis until his self-titled solo album in 1998, after which he has appeared to have retired from music. It’s very difficult to write about this somewhat forbidding, almost miserable, yet rewarding album, it almost stands apart in a genre of its own. Despite being in places a fairly sparse album, the music is highly textured and there are layers which have taken me years to discover. If anything, it’s close to classical music, perhaps Arvo Part, but that only tells part of the story.