Would you believe that I only recently heard Laughing Stock for the first time? I had, of course, unjustly written Talk Talk off as tawdry 80s electro-rockers, due largely to the greatest hits collection I had stumbled across in my lady’s iTunes library. Zero of the songs on that compilation were from Laughing Stock, and only two (“I Believe in You”, “Desire”) were taken from Spirit of Eden, generally considered to be the band’s other masterwork. You can see how I was misled.
“Ascension Day,” the second track from 1991’s Laughing Stock, is a stunningly tight six-minute song that manages to singlehandedly foreshadow much of the post-rock output of the next couple decades, including, yes, Radiohead’s later career phase (specifically In Rainbows). Lee Harris’ spacious drumming is the song’s backbone — the spirit guide for the band’s warm, textural noodling and frontman Mark Hollis’ charmingly disheveled Peter Gabriel-esque vocals. By the conclusion of “Ascension Day,” the song has split open and become a snarling beast, wide-lensed and feral.
That conclusion is a little confusin’: “Ascension Day” stops abruptly in the middle of a measure — the first time I heard it, I thought I’d gotten a bum copy of the track, but no. The teeth-gritting tension of that song leads abruptly into the beginning of the loping, spacious “After the Flood.” At almost 10 minutes, it is the undoubted centerpiece of Laughing Stock, a gem even amidst so many great tracks. Weird atmospherics abound as Harris rides an unswerving rhythm through snaking organ lines and calm guitar feedback. The melodic themes in “After the Flood” reveal themselves deliberately, laconically — all steady peaks and drugged valleys.
As a swan song, Laughing Stock is one hell of a lasting statement. Rumor has it Hollis turned the recording studio into a den of meditation, complete with incense and candles. And though it sounds kind of Enya-cheesy, you can almost sense the Nag Champa wafting through the headphones. It smells just about perfect as it sounds.