Heel to toe to hair and hoof and it's head over heels and it's all but an ark-lark...

Cocteau Twins: Milk & Kisses

  • By Barney Hoskyns
  • MOJO
  • May 1996

An unforgivable thing happened in 1994. The Cocteau Twins released arguably their finest album to date, Four-Calendar Café, only to have it roundly ignored by all and sundry.

Ignored because the group were perceived to have abandoned the sacred indie homestead that was 4AD Records (despite having recorded the album while still signed to that label); because they’d grown up and had kids, apparently a pop crime; and because, in the oafish age of Oasis and their kin, their music suddenly seemed too vaporously euphoric. The godparents of shoegazing were suddenly non-persons.

It’s unlikely that their new album, whose title accurately intimates its soothing, healing powers, will make much difference to their standing in the pop community. Yet for anyone who ever understood that the Cocteaus were a band genuinely blessed by genius—perhaps the most intensely musical group produced by these isles in the ’80s—Milk & Kisses is as compulsory a purchase as Four-Calendar Café or Heaven or Las Vegas or any other of their extraordinary albums.

Like Four-Calendar Café, it grows on you slowly. Slowly you surrender to the voluptuousness of its melancholy, to the dizzying beauty of Liz Fraser’s quadruple-tracked vocal harmonies and Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde’s melodies. There is one immediate Cocteaus classic in ‘Calfskin Smack,’ which can happily stand alongside the likes of ‘Pitch The Baby’ or ‘Squeeze-Wax’ or ‘Blue Bell Knoll,’ and several others that improve with every hearing. On most of these Liz has reverted to the amorphous poesy of old, though the more unadorned lyrical style of Four-Calendar Café is still present in ‘Rilkean Heart’ and the deeply moving ‘Half-Gifts.’ The intense sadness of these songs may not be entirely unrelated to her rumoured break-up with a young Cocteau Twins fan called Jeff Buckley.

Milk & Kisses climaxes with the oceanic ‘Seekers Who Are Lovers,’ all massively flanged guitar and a high soprano line that recalls the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. It’s a song that takes you all the way back to the ecstatic delirium of Head Over Heels and makes you realise just how far the Cocteau Twins have come in 14 years. God bless them.

How long does it take you to come up with those extraordinary vocal lines?

Well, if I cycle around a song, within 15 minutes I’ve usually got something to start with.

Do you ever wonder where your musical instincts come from?

No, because I apply those particular instincts to everything that I do, not just singing. They’ve kept me out of prison and mental institutions, probably, so I don’t like to think about them too much.

Did you always hear music in your head?

No more than my sisters did. We used to sing along to charty pop stuff, along with traditional Scottish music, and we’d have talent competitions in the bedroom. I didn’t think I was necessarily going to be a singer. I always thought I would draw or paint or dance…well, I knew I was too fat to dance!

With Milk & Kisses, you’ve partly returned to your old stream-of-consciousness style, where the lyrics of Four-Calendar Café were surprisingly direct.

Well, I’ve changed an awful lot since Four-Calendar Café. This time I wasn’t trying to make a point or use it as therapy. There’s quite a lot of letting go on this album, whereas on the previous one I was really angry. A lot if it is about the state of mind I was in after Four-Calendar Café, because I was really giving up a person and it hurt a very great deal. There’s still a lot of grieving, but it’s moved on and my vision’s a lot clearer.

Do you listen to new music these days?

I do, but I mostly don’t know who I’m listening to, ‘cos I rely on people around me to give me tapes. You usually just get something with ‘Fucked-Up Dub’ or ‘Let’s All Take Drugs Vol 2’ written on it! ▣