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Shake my head, turn my face to the floor...
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Laughing Stock, released in 1991, is the fifth and final album by British group Talk Talk, embarking on an even further departure from their Synth-Pop/New Wave Music beginnings that began with their previous album, Spirit of Eden, and letting their jazz influences and experimental leanings shine through. The album is sometimes referred to as being a Mark Hollis improvisation session with a bunch of guest artists: bassist Paul Webb left the band prior to recording, and Hollis hired a large ensemble for recordings (to put it into perspective, the amount of violists featured in this album is seven).

The album sold moderately well in its native UK, peaking at No. 26 on the UK Albums charts, but missed the Billboard 200 entirely and never sold well enough to earn any certifications. The album was also somewhat criticised by viewers as being self-indulgent and pretentious upon release, though others praised its haunting tone and musical experimentation, with Melody Maker listing it as the 12th best album of 1991. The album's acclaim exponentially increased in the years since, though, and it is now recognised as one of the Trope Makers for Post-Rock, alongside Spirit of Eden and Slint's Spiderland. While Talk Talk would break up and go their separate ways shortly after its completion, Laughing Stock still generates praise and respect among critics, being widely considered one of the greatest albums ever made. As of 2020, the album sits at No. 492 on Acclaimed Music's list of the 3000 most critically lauded albums of all time.

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Laughing Stock was supported by three singles: "After the Flood (Outtake)", "New Grass", and "Ascension Day", all of which were released solely as part of an elaborate Boxed Set compiling the three together across three CDs (a 10" acetate of "After the Flood (Outtake)" and a promo 7" of "Ascension Day" were put out, but these specific releases weren't made available to the public). These singles and their associated B-sides (most of which are just other tracks from the album) were later collected alongside a solo piano instrumental by Hollis on the scarcely-distributed and now out-of-print Missing Pieces compilation in 2001, released to commemorate the album's tenth anniversary.


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Tracklist:

  1. "Myrrhman" (5:33)
  2. "Ascension Day" (6:00)
  3. "After the Flood" (9:39)
  4. "Taphead" (7:39)
  5. "New Grass" (9:40)
  6. "Runeii" (4:58)

Principal members:

Main band members
  • Mark Hollis – vocal, guitar, piano, melodica, organ (also variophon, uncredited)
  • Lee Harris - drums

Additional instrumentalists

  • Mark Feltham – harmonica
  • Martin Ditcham – percussion
  • Tim Friese-Greene – organ, piano, harmonium
  • Levine Andrade, Stephen Tees, George Robertson, Gavyn Wright, Jack Glickman, Garfield Jackson, Wilf Gibson – viola
  • Simon Edwards, Ernest Mothle – acoustic bass
  • Roger Smith, Paul Kegg – cello
  • Henry Lowther – trumpet, flugelhorn
  • Dave White – contra bass, clarinet

Reckon tropes see us the same:

  • Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence: Implied to be the case with the album's narrator throughout the course of its 43-minute runtime, particularly in regards to the aptly-titled "Ascension Day" and "Runeii".
  • Book-Ends: The album begins and ends with songs whose titles literally translate to "Laughing Stock" and are partly references to the band's earlier works.
  • Call-Back: The titles of the first and last songs on the album hark back to the band's first two albums.
    • "Myrrhman" recalls "Mirror Man" off of The Party's Over, which was released as the band's debut single.
    • "Runeii" recalls the It's My Life track "Renée".
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The album is far more dour in tone than Spirit of Eden while still maintaining the same jazzy, abstract musical style.
  • Concept Album: Analysts have speculated that the album, taken together, details the narrator being Driven to Suicide, ascending to heaven, making contact with God, facing judgement, and finally being granted His final mercy.
  • Driven to Suicide: The lyrics of "Myrrhman" heavily allude to the narrator hanging himself.
  • Epic Rocking: Only one song, "Runeii", is under five minutes long, and even that song's merely two seconds shy. "After the Flood" and "New Grass" in particular stand out, both being over 9 and a half minutes.
  • Fading into the Next Song: "After the Flood" into "Taphead" on CD copies outside the US; American CD copies lack the crossfade effect and instead feature "After the Flood" and "Taphead" as wholly separate tracks, as on the LP release. Interestingly, the lack of a cross-fade ends up highlighting a brief four-second guitar warmup at the start of "Taphead" that the crossfade on most CD copies obscures.
  • I Am the Band: Despite the presence of long-time drummer Lee Harris, Mark Hollis is the dominant force on the record, being the leader of the project and having a much greater level of involvement in composing the final product.
  • Lighter and Softer/Darker and Edgier: It's more artsy and bohemian compared to Slint's Spiderland, but heavier in mood and more fractured in comparison to Talk Talk's earlier Spirit of Eden.
  • New Sound Album: Listening to this, it's hard to believe the band was making cheap Duran Duran-esque synthpop almost a decade before.
  • No Ending: "Ascension Day" cuts off abruptly at the six-minute mark.
  • Not Christian Rock: As with their previous album Spirit of Eden, religious themes are very prominent on Laughing Stock. However, it's more to serve as a reflection on Hollis himself than anything regarding Christianity.
  • Post-Rock: Generally considered the de-facto Trope Maker, alongside Spirit of Eden and Spiderland.
  • Rearrange the Song: The single release of "After the Flood", titled "After the Flood (Outtake)", is an alternate take of the song that runs for roughly half the length of the version included on the album and consists of the vocal part overlaid atop what ultimately became the outro in the album version.
  • Shout-Out: "Myrrhman"— and by extension, the album— opening with an amplifier hiss nods to the start of "21st Century Schizoid Man", itself the opening track of In the Court of the Crimson King.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To Slint's Spiderland, the other Trope Maker for Post-Rock that came out in the same year. The two, while both considered cornerstones of the genre, are so starkly different from each other that they inadvertently illustrate just what a nebulous phrase "post-rock" actually is. Spiderland is a sparse, cold, eerie record made in a basement by a bunch of Louisville punks, which uses unusual song structures, deadpan vocals, and skeletal production to create an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. Laughing Stock meanwhile is a lush, jazzy record that uses diverse instrumentation and free flowing song structures to create a peaceful, spiritual, faintly melancholic atmosphere. It was made by a British band that already had several commercially successful New Wave Music albums under their belt, and featured over a dozen studio musicians playing everything from saxophone to viola. If Spiderland is an old, rusting railroad bridge standing over a swamp, then this album is a beautiful, Edenic garden.
  • Stylistic Suck: The guitar at the end of "Ascension Day" is intentionally played off-tempo and adds to the chaos of the song's closing moments.
  • Title Track: Played with. While no song on the album is named "Laughing Stock" in English, both "Myrrhman" and "Runeii" literally translate to the phrase, essentially giving the album two title tracks at once.
  • Uncommon Time: "Ascension Day" is in 7/4 and "After the Flood" is at least partially in 10/4.

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