I had an odd reaction the first time I heard Radiohead’s Kid A: Didn’t Talk Talk already do this album, back in 1991? That is, of course, an overstatement. But not by much. The taproot of that experimental new-century art-rock sound is Laughing Stock, the vastly underrated death knell recording from Talk Talk that is the subject of luxe new vinyl reissue from Ba Da Bing Records.
Boldly shrugging off its own synthpop history with 1980s-era hits like “It’s My Life,” frontman Mark Hollis’ English group instead produced an album that moved with a glacier-like sense of beauty and purpose. When it wasn’t exploring a celestial dreamscape (on “Myrrhman” and “Runeii”), it was banging around with an off-beat idiosyncrasy (on “Ascension Day”). Patient, emotionally exposed at times, and deeply sensitive to both shadows and space, Laughing Stock sounded like nothing Talk Talk had ever done — and, in some ways, like nothing any pop band had done.
So, like, everybody hated it, of course.
The original Polydor album was deleted three months after its release, and Talk Talk promptly broke up. But for those who had a copy, and there weren’t many, Laughing Stock was more than a raw-boned, at-the-time maybe musically impenetrable relic. It was, in fact, a modern-rock Delorean, hurtling the listener forward into a genre as yet unformed.
The truth is, Talk Talk had been building toward this early-1990s epiphany, beginning with the lengthier ruminations of “Life’s What You Make It” from 1986′s The Colour of Spring. But even then, the group stuck with the era’s favored mechanized rhythm track. Laughing Stock made no such concessions, as Hollis and Co. recorded something that sounded like a long, sometimes rattling exhalation after a deep, deep breath.
A sense of artful experimentation permeated the session, as the band miked its instruments from across the room, to increase the ambiance, then mixed the vocals deeper into the music. Along the way, Talk Talk developing a series of entrancing textures and crepuscular moods that would eventually find their way into the musical DNA of Cowboy Junkies, Portishead and then, perhaps most notably, Radiohead — who cites Talk Talk as a principal influence.
Go find Laughing Stock. It’s the reason why.