Review Summary: THIS IS NOT A REVIEW
It’s interesting, I think, the way Laughing Stock is commonly analysed today. To clarify: there is a tendency amongst reviewers and internet commentators to contextualize it in terms of its relationship with Spirit of Eden, its forebear. Thus ‘truths’ are prescribed to it strictly according to its contiguity with SoE. Are you with me?
For whatever reason, I’m not fond of treating SoE and Laughing Stock as contiguous entities, although I acknowledge that it makes sense to do so, in the same way it that makes sense to categorize The Nationals ‘Alligator’, ‘Boxer, ‘High Violet’ into a neat little inter-related, inter-referential timeline. I’ll even concede that it’s necessary for discourse to frame it in such a light; to do so is to strive to demystify two perplexing albums, neither of which have concrete precedent – or, for that matter, antecedent (the odd Bark Psychosis and Zelienople nod aside). However; I’ve never understood why it falls to SoE to be Laughing Stock’s fraternal partner when Mark Hollis’ self-titled is in many ways closer to it in ethos and spirituality. Nor why Laughing Stock is considered a ‘successor’, of sorts, to Spirit of Eden, when in actuality a better argument could be made that Spirit of Eden is a sequel to the devastatingly good, chronically ignored ‘Colour of Spring’. Actually scratch that; why pair them up at all? To reduce discussion surrounding Talk Talk to two albums in lieu of a more holistic (or HOLLIStic, if you will) approach seems reductive, surely?
My reservations about the contiguous analysis aside though, it IS worth exploring how the discourse frames and distinguishes the two album from another. A common treatment is to consider Laughing Stock a Spirit of Eden put up against a dark mirror; one commentator compares a perfect child to his brother who gets kicked out of school for playing truant. Certainly, it’s not unusual to see SoE described as ‘redemptive’, or ‘triumphant’, or what-have-you – while Laughing Stock is pigeon-holed into categories that denote and connote ‘crisis’, ‘yearning’, ‘lost’, ‘brooding’, ‘loss’.
This is no doubt the upshot of a palpable degree of inter-flexibility between the albums (just for fun, I advise meddling with your itunes by putting ‘The Rainbow’ in between ‘Ascension Day’ and ‘After the Flood’ sometime. It’s definitely an elucidatory bridge between the two, right?!), but for the life of me I think these comments have it all wrong, irrevocably topsy-turvy. There’s no doubt that Laughing Stock has emotional heft, part of which includes bleak and despondent passages completely unlike the types of which you’d find on SoE. Witness, to this end, that haunting violin lick that closes out ‘Myrrhman’, or the brooding cacophony of ‘Taphead’. But ultimately even these aren’t free of light, but majestic and exquisite, entirely necessary wrong-turns that prove advantageous in the greater scheme of things. ‘Spirit’, to me, is the yearning and unsure album, the confused period. Think of ‘The Rainbow’ in terms of ‘After the Flood’. The latter is more resonant, triumphant, surely, than the formers faltering beginning, unresolved bridges? Consider ‘Inheritance’s brooding refrain ‘when it gets my heart out’, with the lyrics ‘how we learnt to linger on / Head in Sand / Expecting the Dour’. If that doesn’t connote hopelessness and befuddlement then what does? Fittingly Spirit ends inconclusively, with a peeping organ line that fades out hesitantly.
Now Laughing Stock is no antithesis to this, but a chart of progress. Where Wealth implores ‘create a home within my head’ New Grass offers the resolution and comfort that ‘they’ll come / they’ll come’. Then there is the swansong, Runeii, which ends on as definitive a concluding note as you’re likely to hear. As the gorgeous, heart-melting piano resolves and fades away, the element of finality is perceptible enough as to be a roar. It’s soothing, it’s majestic, it’s sublime, it’s exquisite, and these are accentuated by the dips of ‘Myrrhman’ and ‘Taphead’. It’s a cohesive album that may or may not have found what it was looking for, exactly, but feels confident enough that it hardly matters. In this context envisage ‘Mark Hollis’ as an equivalent of those ‘where are they now?’ reality show specials; much the same, just as joyous. Continuing this metaphor; if Talk Talk’s career is a television show, Laughing Stock functions as its climax. It is the most important stage in a beings life. It is Benjamin’s punctuating moment of truth, it is art as revelation, as spiritualism. It is fleeting repose amongst the ashes, ashes, ashes, dust, dust, dust.
I realize how mystical this sounds, and I don’t want to leave you wanting so before I dash I’ll address the question of what, exactly, Hollis and co. are ‘yearning’ for on Spirit and ‘actualizing’ on Laughing Stock. The answer is; what’s in that magic box on LOST? Is it something you desire, fear, loathe, are wary of? Is the angst spiritual, existential, political, teenage, transition-oriented? Hell – that part’s up to you. Interpretation, to mis-entitle the song is what you make it.
Disclaimer: the previous paragraphs of errant intellectualization are redundant. If there’s ever an album that’s meant to be FELT, it’s this one.