Belatedly, it appears that the best is yet to come. Truly no other month can be as trying, and as most worthy of our respect and humility, than this shortest stretch of the year, February. Compact to the point of becoming itself a transition to something greater, everything it does; throwing the environmental book at you, scuttling some of your pre-ordained plans, and in certain cases taking back certain binds that form the column of your human self, serves as a testing ground for your mettle. If, you can survive the month. If, you can take stock of what is truly important, even if you have to set aside things that are comforting. Life, in whatever capacity, will provide consolation.

With all that in mind, is it any wonder that most major religions and traditions tend to time their fasting periods during this stretch of time? After previous months entertained certain absolutions, for some reason this month, a month so transitory, commands sacrifice. If life can be seen as a year, February would be the month our experience here in the physical world starts winding down. So, what do we all try to glean from such knowing symbolism? It’s rebirth, of sorts.

William Blake’s Ascension Day poem: “Holy Thursday”

What are our own edicts? For myself these are a few. Hope, hope that our last moments are a return to the beginning of it all. When we were born, we were introduced into the world by the sacrifice of someone who deemed us worthy of coming into its fruition. Desire, a movement that drives us to explore this new environment and introduce from it into our body language further vocabulary of what exactly is our role to play in the larger unknown world. Faith, that’s what our increasing wisdom introduces to an aging corporal body as a known submission to a greater legacy than what we first desired. Of course, there is a bit more.

Surrender, is the return back to that moment of creation. This, this is when we realize how much we can take to the hereafter and what we can leave to history. This time, if we’re enlightened intellectually, makes us realize that from this point on every possible moment matters, and every possible decision has to be measured. Most of your life might have had periods of passive transitions, but here and now, an active spirit must drive your decision making. What you hold dearest to must be the things you take considered steps to hold on to. It is in this that I agree wholly with the philosophy Mark Hollis came to while recording Laughing Stock:

The last thing I would ever want to do is intellectualise music because that’s never been what it’s about for me,” he says. “Nothing has changed from the ethic of the last album and I would never want that to change because I can’t see any way of improving upon that process. As before, silence is the most important thing you have, one note is better than two, spirit is everything, and technique, although it has a degree of importance, is always secondary.

This idea of sacrifice to the esoteric thought of “distance” is what constantly created friction in my life. Life, though, seems to lay in its most important juncture when we welcome and understand this idea of distance. All this grass and greenery may appear barren, but now, don’t you know that roots run mighty deep? And given time and space, won’t they show you their resolve to flower again.

Talk Talk

There’s something so different about the way Laughing Stock commences. At proper volume, you can hear faint oscillations of recorded amp noise introduce you to the first amorphous tones of guitar, viola and trumpet trying to find themselves a role to play. Once Lee Harris’s distant drum is heard trying to contextualize a beat for them to all fall under, as Mark works his way into something intoning “Step right up something’s happening here” (somewhere around the 2 minute mark) and all this textural sonic shroud gets slightly interrupted by a distorted tape scratch…its at that point you start to feel the uniqueness of its vision.

Most albums start off with their most energetic song. Here, though, we have an album inverting the formula. In doing so, they’re forcing you to realize that the grander scope won’t be revealed until you go through the whole album cycle. From then on, as you get engulfed by the placid sonic ideas that sounded so out of place then; and if heard for the first time, might sound so beguiling now, you start to realize the importance of this bit of silence.

Released in 1991, at the height of Grunge and Hardcore Rap’s rise to provenance, three years after Spirit of Eden, again Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green turned in an album to music market that couldn’t be further away from their peers. Recorded in 1990, the album was the product of a transition point in their career. Having severed their ties to their old record label EMI, now they were competing against their former selves for attention. Case in point: in 1990, EMI released a wildly successful Talk Talk compilation album called Natural History against the band’s wishes.

This album, which EMI was within their rights to release, was an attempt to recoup some of the lost sales the label believed they had lost after Spirit of Eden’s financial failure. Although Mark Hollis completely disagreed with their selections, and had no input in the matter, he felt it wasn’t worth a fight. They had already litigated hard enough to merely get released from their contract to go somewhere else (that being Verve/Polydor) that to take up another fight, at this juncture, would be too distracting for them. What happened next would be emblematic of the disrespect they were battling as artists.

In March 1991, mere months before they were set to release Laughing Stock, EMI released another compilation album called History Revisited as a retaliatory measure for that move. According to EMI they were trying to take the “sounds of their eighties output and [give] it a nineties groove”. What in reality this album was, it was a a collection of Talk Talk songs given the dance remix treatment. Sonic abominations like 4 to the Floor’s “Living in Another World (Curious World Dub Mix)” and BBG’s “Life’s What You Make It” somehow successfully reintroduced to the singles charts, for a short run, a genuinely false sense of what the band stood for.

Before the album came out, Mark urged EMI not to release the album. Rightfully, seeing it as a disgusting unauthorized reinterpretation of the original work they spent tireless hours creating, he saw this as genuine bastardization of their musical past. “History Reinvented” as their manager would state. In November 1991, two months after the release of Laughing Stock they took EMI to court for presenting a version of the band that wasn’t them, and in doing so, later on would win further rights for all musicians against such encroachments. What they were then, wasn’t a sound for the nineties, it was something far more timeless, and it was something you can clearly hear in Laughing Stock.

What Was Heard…

Once again recorded under similar circumstances and environs, from September 1990 through April 1991 Talk Talk had started to coalesce around a certain sound. Rather than searching for more to add, they were working on improving on the means to create it. Working in the spirit of certain artists far removed from their own time, and finding solace in similar minded music they started to chart new grounds. This indescribable sound that wasn’t jazz, rock, or much of anything, was symbolized by lack of excess. Pared down even further than before it was quite a wonder to realize how imposing it still was.

All of this is telling by taking a look at some of the songs that greatly influenced Talk Talk during its recording. One doesn’t have to look far to realize why Duke Ellington’s and John Coltrane’s “In a Sentimental Mood” was such a seminal recording to draw inspiration from:

Can you hear what makes it so revelatory? For Mark, it was the sound of drummer Elvin Jones coming to terms with not realizing what key he had to perform in. As Duke starts to play those luxurious languid impressionistic piano notes, you can hear Elvin searching within himself for a sound that would be amenable to Coltrane’s wonderfully tender sax accompaniment. Even though Coltrane knew the tenor of the song much better than him at the beginning, Elvin was willing to surrender to the music and let that inform his movement.

Barely there, in volume, as his equally simpatico friend and bassist Jimmy Garrison, they somehow start forming the backbone to this extremely considerate song. Originally composed by Duke in 1935 for his big band orchestra, it wasn’t until 1962 when it was laid bare by John (and his growing modal vision) into its quarter jazz group arrangement, that it truly displayed its beauty. Its a beauty gained through subtlety and sensitivity, both in sound and volume. This explains another sound Talk Talk was drawing inspiration from.

Another album that was rolling inside Talk Talk’s head was Tago Mago by Can. It isn’t hard to hear why. In tracks like “Oh Yeah” you hear elements of jazz music, but music that isn’t jazz by any standard. You hear a drummer locked in to a groove that invites spontaneity. Any member of the band could jump in and as a whole the track functions, as this revelatory bit of trance, because that groove is constant allowing you to leave and come back, when necessary. Few listeners imagining the album version being enhanced through subtraction of bits and pieces of much larger improvisations.

Aside from obvious influences “free” music like Messiaen’s, Ligeti’s, and their ilk, played on melodic structure, another overriding feeling was that of the no-frills, warts and all, approach perfected on albums like Dylan’s Self Portrait and New Morning. You hear this perfection of “time and rest”, as Mark would put it, in tracks like “Copper Kettle” and “If Not For You”. If, peace was the key element in music, the sonic atmosphere (let alone the actual real-life setting) must reflect this quietness and character. Warts and all, its this deeply “honest” human sound that moved a lot of Laughing Stock’s creation:

All of these roots are what you hear in Laughing Stock. Keeping all of that in mind, is it any wonder when you hear that moving stretch starting from “After the Flood” which ends the first side of the album,  and commences again on the b-side of the album with “Taphead”, cycling through my favorite “New Grass”, and ending with the indescribable “Runeii”, you start to slowly realize why Talk Talk dissolved shortly thereafter. Going through this course, as you feel the music lose all sorts of instrumentation, complexity, and more to a larger theme, certain things light up your noggin. Even though you may stop to admire little things on the album like how one note on the variophon (due to the strange mechanic of luck/malfunction) gets stretched into unimaginable tones or Mark’s vocals growing increasingly phonetic to match the growing tranquility…its these things, created so in the moment, that make this music so irreplicable. In this age of hoarded memories, here’s a masterpiece to fleeting ones.

Laughing Stock album cover.

Dylan himself knew enough to never to try and replicate the same magic/feeling on stage for his kindred songs. To be faithful to the original thought, would be impossible if all the things that made it so special, and singular, stood to lose power through routine. What you hear on the album, is exactly what mattered dearly to all the members of Talk Talk then, to add or subtract anything else would be superfluous.

These are the things that make March so heartening. Every year we know what we have to go through to get to it. Every year we know we stand to lose something. Every year we dread what it might be. On certain years though, that dread gets replaced by serenity. On those years we realize that what matters is that uncertainty. Its that uncertainty that makes us live day to day, hour by hour, minute by minute, second to second. For all that we plan in life, there’s a certain power in ambiguity and silence. Mark put it better than I could:

The last thing I need to do is to have the next year off having to keep re-arranging everything. That would be going in the opposite direction for me. Laughing Stock is now history. I would like to continue into the future.

Remember when we started? Weren’t we on the river, down black water side with Anne, wondering where this neo-folk sojourn would take us? Somehow, we’ve ended where we began. And now, now doesn’t this feel different?

Listen to Laughing Stock at Spotify.

Now, if, you’re coming back and rediscovering this album, its well worth setting aside 19 minutes of your time to listen to this enlightening interview Mark gave explaining some of how Laughing Stock was made: