The Cocteau Twins
15-year "moment," you say? Hear me out.
At the outset, I should say that I may not be your typical fan of these three Scottish burrheads. Of their three most critically-revered albums, one I don't particularly care for (Treasure), and I consider myself only passingly familiar with the other two (Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven Or Las Vegas).
Such ignorance ought to render me unfit to pass judgment of much substance. Not with the Cocteau Twins, though, by whom you could arguably pick a release at random and be able to describe in painstaking detail exactly what it would sound like - a group that essentially made the same record eight times over (13 if you count their ten EP's), for whom "progress" largely meant acquiring better-sounding drum machines as their career wore on.
Cocteau Twins songs had rules, you see - and unspoken though they may have been, they were followed with a discipline (if not spirit) to rival that of an al Qaeda militant. At the center were Liz Frasier's multitracked, quasi-operatic vocals, sugar-hiccupping their way through the reverb-drenched mix, with Robin Guthrie's proto-shoegazing guitars, equal parts Kevin Shields and Roger McGuinn, tangling underneath. Melodies were soaring, arrangements so gauzy they left a residue and tempos uniformly sluggish - only periodically would a piano or keyboard slip into the mix, and even when they did you barely noticed. In any other group, the brutal, relentlessly-pounding drum machine would grind it all to an anvil-dropping halt - here, it merely adds a touch of levity to the proceedings.
For the Cocteau Twins, that was template: soaring vocals, cascading guitars, pounding drum machine, buckets of reverb. Trends be damned, there would be no hip hop experiments, no dancefloor moves and zero concessions to the marketplace. It was as if no one else existed.
Am I generalizing for effect? Absolutely, but as it only takes a solitary listen to the group's sumptuously packaged ten-disc EP box-and a look at each CD's virtually identical artwork-to realize, not much. But you can't blame them, really - it wasn't the Cocteau Twins' fault that they sprouted almost a completely mature band, their style in radiant full bloom. True, their first LP, Garlands and attendant EP's, Lullabies and Peppermint Pig admittedly do seem a bit more conventionally post-punk than the rest of their work. But by 1983's miraculous Sunburst and Snowblind EP, the group had arrived at the sound that would define them, and they would never let it go - even in the few places where the band did choose to add a pinch more spice than the usual recipe called for, including their collaboration with ambient pianist, Harold Budd, The Moon and the Melodies and the largely acoustic Victorialand, for which bassist Simon Raymonde briefly departed.
Indeed, only near the very end of their career on records like the Otherness EP, remixed by Seefeel's Mark Clifford, and non-album tracks like modestly funky "The Watchlar" did the group seem even remotely inclined to try something new. At the same time, latter-day records like Heaven Or Las Vegas or Milk n' Kisses where you could-gasp!-supposedly understand what Liz was singing merely showed the band flexing a bit more melodic acuity than previously (as for Liz singing "real words," I defy any listener to make out more than the occasional phrase - Boomauer on King of the Hill is more intelligible). When the end for the group finally did come in 1997 in the midst of recording their ninth album, it would seem the well simply had run dry.
Ok, you say, but doesn't a decade and a half of doing the same thing over and over seem more like, say, artistic stagnation than a perfect moment? Sure - until, of course, you pause for a (ahem) moment and contemplate about what might constitute such a thing. Without getting too Hawking-esque here, consider that Merriam-Webster might define a "perfect moment" as "a comparatively brief period of time corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept". And while I'll grant that I am stretching the notion of "comparatively brief" by pitting 15 years against the roughly 100-year history of recorded popular music, the Cocteau Twins did nothing if not pursue the abstract and aspire to some sort of ideal.
Indeed, at least half of the Cocteau Twins' songs sound like the 5-second climax of another song stretched over three or four minutes. Consider the title track of Heaven or Las Vegas, which has such an utter lack of dynamics, it's hard to even pinpoint where the chorus is on the first few listens. Or "Seekers Who Are Lovers," which almost sounds as if begins mid-song. That's not to say such songs are uninteresting-these in particular are actually quite stunning-just that they often start at a fever pitch from the first downbeat and never let up. The same could be said of the entire Blue Bell Knoll record, which, barring the keyboard texture that opens the album, sustains what seems like a never-ending sequence of ecstatic vocals and arpeggiating guitars for forty minutes. It ends up feeling more like an extended-play remix 12" of the same song than the LP proper that it is.
And so it's only natural that this feeling of unrelenting ecstasy would extend to the group's entire catalog, such as it was. The question then becomes why - why would the group persist down this already-explored road and for so long? At the time, I'll admit, the group's apparent inability to develop artistically appeared almost comically bizarre. But today that all seems quite different, as if it were intentional, if not unavoidable.
Frasier's astonishing vocals aside, it was this obsessive...sameness that made the Cocteau Twins positively unique in pop, as if their career was one giant ambient moment that occurred outside of time or chronology. It was as if they were permanently stuck in an endless pursuit for that one perfect moment, one that captured all the emotions and colors that existed in some kind of eternally suspended animation, never realizing that they had been there all along.
Maybe I'm wrong. But I constantly think back to the time a friend in college played me a 2-bar loop of the 4AD all-stars group, This Mortal Coil. At the time I thought I was listening to Liz Frasier singing Tim Buckley's "Song To the Siren" (I would later learn it was actually the chorus to Roy Harper's "Another Day"). As the loop played again and again on his sampler, I just remember I had no idea what she was singing or where it was from, but that I loved it and didn't care.
By: Matthew Weiner
Published on: 2004-03-22