Regular readers of this website will have become increasingly accustomed to my particular mode of passive-aggressive vituperation. The world throws something at me, and my first response is to hack it to pieces with the time-honoured weapons of sarcasm, sneeriness and good old-fashioned patrician snobbery.
Finally, I have the opportunity to say something nice – because the good people over at Ba Da Bing! records (nope, me neither) have gone ahead and reissued what is objectively and indisputably the greatest album of all time by any band in any genre. Ever.
That record is, of course, Laughing Stock, the parting shot of 80s pop casualties-turned-experimentalists Talk Talk. The briefest possible biography – Talk Talk formed, like many of their contemporaries, out of the fragments of various johnny-come-lately punk bands. They issued two albums of somewhat forgettable synth-pop (you have heard the title track of the sophomore record, It’s My Life, even if you don’t know it, on some godawful local radio station somewhere).
Then came The Colour of Spring - still demonstrably a pop record, the band nevertheless managed to drop in a few jazz flourishes and a bit of empty space. It made EMI a whole heap of money, a good part of which they then showered on Talk Talk for their follow-up record. They took the blank cheque and turned it into something somewhere between Miles Davis and Arvo Part; Spirit of Eden led band and label into a great web of lawsuits and counter-suits. A near defunct jazz imprint of Polydor picked them up, and they managed to piece together Laughing Stock before finally disintegrating.
Laughing Stock has the same basic ingredients as its predecessor – nods to minimalism, Eno’s first ambient records, blues guitar and the mood and production techniques of Miles Davis’s first electric records (principally, piecing long compositions together in painstaking fashion out of innumerable separate takes). That, of course, makes it sound like an exercise in austere academic navel gazing, which it isn’t at all. No enumeration of aesthetic touchstones can get at the sheer harrowing weight of this music. Spirit of Eden was moody material, but polished; it sounds like it was recorded in a state of the art (for 1988) studio for a lot of money. Laughing Stock sounds like it was recorded in your soul – which just makes the odd balls-out guitar section all the more unnerving.
Pride of place goes to New Grass, which is kind of the direct antithesis of rock and roll – turn everything down to minus eleven, and somehow every detail sings out all the more clearly. It’s also the best showcase for Lee Harris’s beautifully simple drum-work (recycled for that Unkle song with Thom Yorke and the video with the guy getting hit by cars).
Laughing Stock is usually cited as one of two records that sparked what came later to be called ‘post-rock’ (the other being Slint’s much more guitar-centric Spiderland) – a loose umbrella term for a series of bands that effectively repeated the 1970s prog-rock idea (fusing elements from other genres into a basically rock-band set-up) while ditching the latter’s kitsch showiness. It certainly fits the bill in those terms, but really it is best understood as a kind of musical singularity; nothing sounds like Laughing Stock, before or after the fact, whereas innumerable bands take very obviously after Slint. It is quite unrepeatable.
The re-issue (which is accompanied by frontman Mark Hollis’s excellent self-titled solo album) is on nice, heavy vinyl. If you can’t be arsed with vinyl, then the CDs are still available around the place. The bottom line is: you need it in your life, one way or the other. So sod off and get it.
PS: Also get the Giles Corey album, which would have been album of the year if Ba Da Bing hadn’t gazumped them with this re-issue. (Basically, imagine the first Bon Iver album, only way more depressing. It is equally lovely and grim.)