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

“A Method in Their Madness”

  • By Jack Barron
  • 15-Nov 1986

A review of Cocteau Twins in concert at Portsmouth Guildhall, 1986

Everyone has their own theories about the Cocteau Twins. After tonight’s performance, mine is this: they are close to madness in their quest for a perfect musical puzzle and, as such, they are one of the most provocative and dramatic groups you will ever see.

The Cocteaus are perceived by many as being some sort of neo-goth-cum-hippie easy listening muzak for space cadets and courting couples. I think they are the opposite. Inside their artfully constructed private world of sound, I hear a nameless terror at work. And it’s this demon which lies at the source of Elizabeth Fraser’s singing.

Why? The first thing is that Elizabeth’s hand movements border on the insane; they claw at each other in fear. On this opening night in Portsmouth—pianist collaborator Harold Budd isn’t with them—I found myself utterly mesmerised by the petite singer’s intensity. She may not roll around the boards and howl in the trad rockist manner, but those psycho hand gestures are a dead giveaway.

The sheer physical passivity of Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde on either side of her, as they shimmered forth the band’s guitar afterburn, served to highlight the singer’s inner violence. Elizabeth often seemed at war with something inside herself, and it’s this friction that gives her voice its emotional depth.

No doubt you are thinking my trolley’s become disconnected, but let’s pause for a minute to consider the group’s name. One educated guess is that Robin and Elizabeth purloined it from Jen Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (which roughly translates into The Holy Terrors).

In the novel, two orphans, a brother and a sister—the latter is ironically enough called Elizabeth—build themselves a private world within a shared room in which they act out their fantasies. The eventual result is the death of the brother and Elizabeth herself committing suicide. Has Ms. Fraser adopted this role? Maybe not, but it’s an interesting theory. It certainly puts ‘She Will Destroy You’ in a new light and partly accounts for the private lyrical world she has made her forte.

The almost-singing-in-tongues nature of Elizabeth’s vocals has long been the Cocteaus’ strongest suit, and this evening’s performance of the seminal ‘Sugar Hiccup’ drove that home. But it isn’t simply that her tonsils are titanium-plated; everything about this band is designed to stimulate your imagination and tickle your intuition. In that sense, the audience are an integral part of a very elaborate puzzle. Each person supplies their own meaning to the songs; where some hear happiness, I hear sadness, and vice versa. The Cocteaus have something to offer everyone, from courting couples to conspiring theorists like myself. In that they are unique. ▣