Like it or not, we are all chained to our past. What we have done slowly becomes who we are. This holds especially true for musicians as they constantly struggle against what they have already created for the world to behold. The pieces of art that fans, labels, journalists, and maybe themselves become forever tethered to their identity. The crusty joke about “I like their old stuff better” is often truly a death knell for a band’s growth. An artist is frozen in time by their own past success. Why try anything new if it won’t matter to most of the people who care about your product anyway? And, frankly, for a lot of bands, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Changing styles might spark the sell-out or jumped the shark chants with angry mobs carrying pitchforks and reading Pitchfork. If you don’t, though, you risk growing stale and fading away.
Some bands lean into a stylistic steadfastness and can compel allegiance through sheer resolute commitment. The Ramones, Motorhead, and the Cramps built a brand on a singular style, albeit their own very unique style. Most artists with some longevity, ebb and flow, grow and retreat, but hang around their general vicinity of comfort. There are tons of examples of this. Artists like Wilco, REM, Willie Nelson, Rolling Stones, etc. It goes on and on. Some artists reinvent themselves constantly throughout their careers but never to a completely unrecognizable degree. This would include David Bowie, Prince, Madonna, and Bob Dylan. Some simply pinball from one horrific sound to the next. Sting, for example, and his tantrically mediocre existence. Some artists might occasionally take an oddball flier on a totally random genre record that exists squarely outside of their cannon, maybe for fun, or by accident, or out of contract obligations...think Serge Gainsbourg’s Reggae album, Ween’s country album, Neil Young’s Trans, Metal Machine Music, Pat Boone’s unfortunately satisfying metal album, and of course, the oft cited here, Chris Gaines taking off the goatee mask to become Garth Brooks. These often sound more on the wrong side of the “novelty to homage” scale. However, there are a few rare cases when an artist completely reinvents themselves, elevating the limits of ambition and shattering preconceived notions of their music. Scott Walker left behind his teeny bopper career to become a pork-pounding master of the avant-garde. Tom Waits evolved from a barroom balladeer to a carnival barking madman. Brian Eno disrobed from his leopard print glam tendencies to essentially single-handedly herald in ambient music. And finally, Talk Talk who started as a group of synth-toting Duran Duran doppelganger doppelgangers to being at the forefront of the post-rock movement.
As we continue to delve into different forms of isolation shaped and sculpted into musical artifacts, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock is intentionally distancing from the sentiment and bias of the past. A band that desperately works to create space and blatant disregard from what they are supposed to be. And in the end, it turns out to be too destructive of a force for the group to continue.