Artists On Albums: AOA#26 (Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg on Laughing Stock)

Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg on…

Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock (Verve/Polydor, 1991)

Talk Talk - Laughing Stock

It was the depths that drew me in.  I woke up under a wool coat on the floor at a friend’s house during one of our early tours to the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of a needle dropping onto an LP – and then the first muted trumpet note and violin swells of “The Rainbow”, from Spirit of Eden, sounds so light and dreamlike that they hovered near silence.  I’d just started to drift off again when a crystalline guitar figure was shattered by a blazing harmonica.  It lit me right up.  What was this? Charlie Musselwhite’s lost psychedelic record?  And then a voice – an introspective, clipped, mysterious, Anglican warble, humble but laced with hard-won confidence.  Later on I’d get lost in trying to parse out Mark Hollis’ lyrics, the beguiling, organic and deceptively complex structures of the songs themselves, and the textures of the instruments (playing guess-what’s-making-that-sound is seldom as much fun as it is with Talk Talk).  But what most immediately moved me, most intrigued me, was the sense of space and depth in the recording.  It felt large enough to live in, beautifully and elegantly constructed, and above all real, even though no band playing in any room could possibly sound quite like this.

Laughing Stock, the band’s next (and last) record, took them even further into this terrain.  It’s a singular achievement, a sonic world of beauty and ugliness, tension and release that’s probably the most meditative rock album ever made.  Is it my favorite record?  I’m not sure.  Probably.  I’ve certainly spent more time with it than any other album of the last ten years, listening for every whisper and scrape in the far distance of  “Myrrhman” and “Taphead”, poring over the notes about its semi-legendary recording sessions (on tape, in the dark, over many months, with only one mic for the drums, in a venerable London studio that’s now been converted into condominiums).

But at the same time, its pull is so strong that I ultimately find myself resisting it a little bit. It’s a place you’d like to learn from, but it’s not a place you’d ultimately want to stay, and there’s a hermetic darkness to the album that feels beautifully but irrevocably specific to a place and time.  I once spoke to Phill Brown, Talk Talk’s engineer, about working together, and I took care to reassure him that I wasn’t trying to book a visit to Laughing Stock-land.  There was a brief silence on the line.  “I’m glad to hear you say that,” he said, a little carefully.  “I get a lot of work because of those records, and I’m very proud of them.  But they were a difficult time.  Relationships ended. Marriages broke up. And my health suffered as a result. And besides,” he added, “everything on those albums was basically chance.  If you come into the studio with some songs, you’re way ahead of them.”

From a producer’s standpoint, I guess he’s right. But I can’t help thinking that it’s that very quality – of painstaking work for moments of sudden discovery, of effortless-sounding results from obsessive effort – that makes Laughing Stock (and, to a slightly lesser degree, Eden) so indelible.  Plenty of records have been slaved and obsessed over for far too long, but Talk Talk somehow managed to preserve the life, the ecstatic thrill, of being there at the first moment of creation, when everything is so precariously balanced it’s impossible to know how it might break.  Enter these enchanted woods, you who dare.

Notes On The Artist:

Jonathan Meiburg

For over a decade, Jonathan Meiburg has been the de-facto leader of the ever evolving and ornithologically-obsessed Shearwater.  Although originally conceived as a side-project with Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, the group has since grown into a sturdy stand-alone entity, yielding seven official albums across several independent labels (Grey Flat, Misra, Matador and now Sub Pop) alongside a slew of short-form and self-pressed releases.  Never shy of expressing affection for Talk Talk previously, Shearwater’s epic cover of the above mentioned “The Rainbow” can be found on the flipside to 2008’s Rooks 7” on Matador.

Beyond Shearwater duties, Meiburg has also spent his time in latter-day Americana lynchpins Okkervil River (between 1999 and 2008) and little-known folk-rock outfit Whu Gnu (between 1993 and 2003).

Meiburg’s newly-released long-player with Shearwater – entitled Animal Joy – is supported by US and European touring with Sharon Van Etten and Julie Doiron.

Shearwater – “Breaking The Yearlings” (from Animal Joy)

Okkervil River – “Lost Coastlines” (from 2008’s The Stand Ins)