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

Lyrics

One of the biggest ongoing debates about Cocteau Twins relates to the “lyrics,” or lack thereof. For years journalists, fans, and even record labels tried desperately to decipher what Elizabeth Fraser might have been singing. (Japanese record labels notoriously insisted on including lyric sheets with every album, and so would have staff write up what they thought they were hearing, which almost always led to some rather bizarre outcomes.)

Great Pop Things comic from NME July 1991
Comic strip from New Musical Express (NME), July 1991

In the beginning, it wasn’t always so difficult to figure out. Some of the lyrics were included on the sleeves of Garlands and Head Over Heels.

Over time, Liz’s vocal acrobatics became more complex and almost entirely obscure before returning to relative clarity in the 1990s. Lyrics were included wholesale in the videos for “Rilkean Heart” and “Half-Gifts” in 1995 (from Twinlights) and for “Tishbite” in 1996. The 1996 LP Milk & Kisses featured snippets of lyrics printed on the inner sleeves of both the standard and special editions.

Liz has had many interesting things to say in response to questions about her lyrics, some of them very revealing and worth considering:

“I’m not ashamed… I mean, even in the studio there’s been words, like actually singing… ‘Peppermint Pig,’ singing about ‘runts’ and things (laughs), there’s definitely some words that are very embarrassing to sing. The words that are on the sleeve of [Head Over Heels], there’s bound to be people who hate them, so it makes you really frightened, that might have something to do with it.”

“I’m proud of them, I’m very proud of them, but I’ve always said I didn’t want them to be a let-down to people, I didn’t want people to think, ‘Oh hell, I liked my version better’ (laughs), and even if people did like the words they’d get sick of them eventually, probably, and it just seems such a sad situation. I don’t want to sing about me anyway. Sod that! I have to distance myself from it. I don’t know whether I have to or not, but I do. Fortunately they come out making a sort of sense. They make enough sense to other people for them to actually… they can understand, they can see things, they have these mental pictures.” [Sounds, 1983]


[Jokingly] “I think I feel a bit sorry for them [people who can’t understand her lyrics]. I feel sorry me, as well! I don’t know. I just wish they’d take advantage of it. They could really use that. I could be singing anything. I could be singing things they could be sort of really against, like I could be raving on about hell or something!” [Baktabak Interview Disc, 1984]


“A lot of the stuff I was singing about [in the early 1980s] was all metaphorical. I wasn’t talking like I am now. I guess it’s back to how much personal power you feel that you have. Like, if I’m 17 and I don’t even know when I’m hungry, am I tired, have I had any sleep—if you don’t even know that, then how can you talk about lyrics that come from such an unconscious place? I always said ‘I dont’ know’, and I didn’t.” [Alternative Press, 1995].


“That was the point this time [Four-Calendar Café], to make them mean something. I can see that now in retrospect. Back then [Blue Bell Knoll], with the sounds, I thought I was being really honest, but now I think I’m being a lot more honest by writing things down and then singing it.” [Lime Lizard Magazine, 1993].


“I’ve just recently realized that I’m a very secretive person, that I’m constantly covering up for myself. I’m only just realizing how much. I don’t really know what’s happening. I hope it doesn’t mean that I won’t allow myself to do more things like Blue Bell Knoll. I’d like to be able to do everything. You see, on that album, I was still expressing the same things. I was still feeling the same feelings, but I wasn’t getting caught up in them. I was just feeling into a fucking microphone. I really was getting caught up in them on this album [Four-Calendar Café]. It was very painful. And the lyrics aren’t even that explicit.”

“What I’ve got to do is get honest, to stop doing what I was doing. Unfortunately, and this is typical of me, I tend to go from one extreme to the other. To go from an album like Blue Bell Knoll, which is so heavily disguised and removed from reality, to Heaven or Las Vegas, or even more to this one, where everything on it is in English and it’s all audible…it is extreme, I think. But it seems important for me to do that.” [The Wire, 1993].


“It’s amazing though, yeah, I mean that’s—I mean really the records are—a representation of our coping skills, and I think I was very much in denial, and I think that you can hear that on the album [Blue Bell Knoll]. You know, not one word can you grasp. Giving anything away…it just wasn’t allowed.”

“What they are [pre-Four-Calendar Café lyrics], are words that I’ve taken from maybe seen written down in a language that I don’t understand, and liking them and maybe making new words as well out of them. I mean I’ve got reams and reams of words that I don’t have a clue what they mean, but I wanted them because, I knew I’d be able to express myself without giving anything away.” [NPR Interview, 1993].


“The catch is I can barely talk English, isn’t it? I quite like that. Combining words in different languages that I couldn’t understand just meant that I could concentrate on the sound and not get caught up in the meaning.”

“See, I find that mine [lyrics] don’t have any meanings. They’re not proper. Although I’ve got a great dictionary of them. It’s like the Cockney rhyming slang or something. Writers like John Lennon. Writers that just kind of made up their own portmanteaux that caught on and people still use them. They don’t mean anything, though, that’s the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It’s all sound all the way through.”

“…[the dictionary] is how I got some of the words. And then I got to the stage where, I don’t know, something just came in. My life was a fucking mess…and I just couldn’t carry on. I mean, it would have been so easy to do that. ‘Cause after Blue Bell Knoll, which was really the easiest, the easiest I’ve ever done to make a record, I just couldn’t keep going that way. I guess that was the start of learning to be aware of what was going on and what I was responsible for.”

“I went to see someone this time ‘cause I really got into trouble on this album. I was just freaking out all over the place. I stopped making a lot of sounds, you know. I was talking very quietly. I was just so afraid of getting loud again. ‘Cause I’m not really very loud on Four-Calendar Café. I just feel like I’ve lost touch with that side of me and I wanted to get back in touch with it so that I can have my quiet moods and I can have my moments when I can express myself in a very loud way, as well. ‘Cause that’s good for other emotions.” [Mondo 2000, 1993].


“We have had people on the Internet who have written translations and they obviously have a natural talent for writing. Their interpretations are so beautiful that sometimes I have preferred what they have written to what I actually sang, it has been much more eloquent. Those people are not so precious about us [Cocteau Twins] and just enjoyed using their talent and it is lovely to witness. But some people are very…It seems that some people are convinced they know us better than we know ourselves, and that we ought to listen to them. They want to steer us and they are very precious about us and they do not want other people to have us. If you really love something, then you have to let it go and endorse everything about it that attracted you to it in the first place. It’s just like a love affair or any relationship: you have to treat it in the same way or you’ll just suffocate and destroy it in the end if you don’t.” [BOYZ, 1995].


“I gained so much from [inventing language]. I didn’t expect it to be such a fulfilling experience, at first it was an avoidance tactic. More than that. But I must have given myself permission along the way that I was really gonna go for it and not worry about people’s opinions.”

“I often get into trouble with lyrics in a way that wasn’t happening with Blue Bell Knoll. I often get stuck with lyrics, I get into old habits and keep doing the same thing. Writing Blue Bell Knoll I had a wonderful freedom to put lyrics aside and not to worry.”

”[‘Athol-brose’ is named after the Scottish drink] “whiskey and honey… I’d had quite a lot of that. [On] ‘A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,’ I remember I felt love, a really intense love, I was romanticising about it, a romantic image of being open and having your heart open.”

“[Robin Guthrie’s mother] was quite a big woman, in terms of personality as well as physique, and she was very jolly and nimble; even though she was a big lady there was something very delicate about her. [On ‘Ella Megalast Burls Forever’] I just had this image of her revolving, and this going on and on forever and ever, eternally. And so she should!” [Elizabeth in conversation with John Grant, discussing Blue Bell Knoll, 2017]

All one can really be sure of is that there are few, if any, absolute answers to the question of Liz’s lyrics (other than what’s in her head or written in her journals). At the end of the day, we may all be better off simply listening and enjoying, rather than searching for any hidden meaning, although there often is some meaning to it all. According to Liz, Robin, and Simon, she never sang “gibberish” and was not really an improviser, either—what she sang was carefully worked out. She did occasionally resort to using foreign words or a “cut and paste” approach to lyrics. Nevertheless, fans have managed to coax some interesting interpretations (but read them at your own risk!)

What we know

Here are the few lyrics that have been written down, either on a record sleeve or elsewhere (including for closed captions on television for music video broadcast). They run the full gamut from metaphorical to playful slang to straightforward prose and back again.

Garlands

But I’m Not
Things from the forest die here
But I don’t
Dead forest things are offered here
But I’m not
Blind Dumb Deaf
My mouthing at you
My tongue the stake
I should welt should I hold you
I should gash should I kiss you
Shallow Then Halo
The then shallow she
Earth as we know it
The then halo she
A sky for the sacred
Stars in my eyes
Stars at my feet
Womb in the belly
Capital place
Garlands
Garlands evergreen
Forget-me-not wreaths
Chaplets see me drugged
I could die in the rosary
Die in the rosary
Grail Overfloweth
Grail Overfloweth
There is rain
And there’s saliva
And there’s you…

Lullabies

Feathers Oar Blades
Bare in foot and hide
Barefaced bareheaded
Bare in foot and hide
Bare in foot and hide
Crestfallen, weeping
The cripples though crestless
Are crestfallen weeping
Feathers oar blades
Splitting hair feathers
Spitting out oar blades
Spitting out oar blades
Crestfallen, weeping
The cripples though crestless
Are crestfallen weeping
All in teetotum
Widdershins every’s body
Is all in teetotum
Is all in teetotum
Spitting out oar blades
Alas Dies Laughing
Flaxen the tresses / Both
Flesh and fleshings / Tongue-
Tied and stuttering / Was
Quick take to mummering
Flaxen the tresses All
Fingers and stresses / Tongue-
tied and stuttering / Was
Quick take to mummering
It’s All But An Ark Lark
Kicked all from my curtsies
Barking biting amongst ourselves
Heel to toe to heel to head
And it’s head over heels
And it’s all but an ark-lark
Heel to toe to hair and hoof
And it’s head over heels
And it’s all but an ark-lark
Kicked all from my curtsies
This mockingbird
My lullabies
And it’s head over heels
And it’s all but an ark-lark

Head Over Heels

When Mama Was Moth
Sunburst and snowblind
When mama was moth
I took bulb form
Glass Candle Grenades
Glass candle grenades
Are popping
Still we’ll not keel over
The Tinderbox (of a heart)
The tinderbox of a heart
Left a shell is all
My Love Paramour
Fig up, my love
Ooze out and away, onehow

Heaven or Las Vegas

Cherry-Coloured Funk
You’ll hang the hearts
Black and dull as the night
You hanged your past and start being
As you in ecstasy
Still being cried and laughed at before
Should I be sewn and hugged?
I can by not saying
Still being cried and laughed at
From light to blue
I should I be hugged and tugged down
Through this tiger’s masque?
Wolf in the Breast
Laughing on our bed
Pretending us newly-wed
Especially when
Our rough angel unleashed that head
I feel perpetual

Four-Calendar Café

Bluebeard
Aliveness, exploration
Aliveness, energy
Are you the right man for me?
Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Are you the right man for me?
Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Aliveness, exploration
Fulfillment, creativity
Are you the right man for me?
Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Or are you toxic for me?
Will you betray my confidence?
Are you the right man for me?
Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Or are you toxic for me?
Will you betray my confidence?
Naming things is empowering
I balance, walk and coordinate myself
I’m alive
Aliveness energy
Are you the right man for me? Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Or are you toxic for me? Will you mistreat me or betray my confidence?
Are you the right man for me? Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Or are you toxic for me? Will you mistreat me or betray my confidence?
Are you the right man for me? Are you safe? Are you my friend?
Or are you toxic for me? Would you mistreat me or betray my confidence?
Evangeline
Sorrow for letting someone else define you
Know who you are at every age
What impression am I making?
I see me as other people see me
There is no going back
I can’t stop feeling now
I am not the same, I’m growing up again
I am not the same
I’m growing up again
There’s no going back, I can’t stop feeling now
I had to fantasize
I was a princess, Mum and Dad were Queen and King
I ought to have what feeling?
I see me as other people see me
There is no going back
I can’t stop feeling now
I am not the same, I’m growing up again
I am not the same
I’m growing up again
There’s no going back I can’t stop feeling now
Feeling now
There is no going back
I can’t stop feeling now
I am not the same, I’m growing up again
I am not the same
I’m growing up again
There’s no going back, I can’t stop feeling now
I had to fantasize just to survive
I was a famous artist
Everybody took me seriously
Even those who did, never understood me
I had to fantasize just to survive

Twinlights

Rilkean Heart (Acoustic Version)
Rilkean heart
I looked for you
To give me transcendent experiences
To transport me out of self and aloneness
And alienation into a sense of oneness
And connection ecstatic and magical
I became a junkie for it
I came looking for the next high
And I’m sorry
I’ve been putting the search on the wrong place
I understand that you’re confused
Feeling overwhelmed
Well that’s a feeling state from then
The reality
I’m becoming truly self-reliant and
Becoming connected with something beyond me
That is where I have to go
I’m so sorry
I’ve been putting the search on the wrong place
You’re lost and don’t know what to do
But that’s not all of you
That’s the reality today
And that is all okay
Half-Gifts (Acoustic Version)
It’s an old game, my love:
When you can’t have me, you want me
Because you know that you’re not risking anything
Intimacy is when we’re in the same place
At the same time
Dealing honestly with how we feel
And who we really are
That’s what grownups do
That is mature thinking
Well I’m still a junkie for it
It takes me out of my aloneness
But this relationship cannot sustain itself
Intimacy is when we’re in the same place
At the same time
Dealing honestly with how we feel
And who we really are
That’s what grownups do
That is mature thinking
I just have to know
How to be in the process
Of creating things in a better way
And it hurts, but it’s a lie
That I can’t handle it
I still have a world of me-ness to fulfill
I still care about this planet
I am still connected to nature
And to my dreams for myself
I have my friends
My family
I have myself
I still have me
I have my friends
My family
I have myself
I still have me

Milk & Kisses

Violaine

(Hint: read the lines right-to-left, backwards.)

Ectefamof oitavito fles eth yll-anif
snoitatimil noitae chus sec-cus
namukadnu itnemavom lacigolochysp
Tishbite
Is it like a dream?
Or does it seem grounded and real?
I feel a connection
A deep connection
But it’s not reflected
In time spent together
It’s reflected psychically
Emotionally
Is it like a dream?
Or does it seem grounded and real?
This mountain of pleasure
I want to get lost in it
Sleep like a baby
Still close
Still close
Until I don’t know where you end
Or I begin
Until I just carry it in me
Calfskin-Smack
And when I had you
I didn’t always want you baby
Eperdu
Above day holding nest
Both that sheltering and
Taking possession hand, outstretched,
Trembles its echo
Treasure Hiding
Fire hairs had no belly focus
Light the discards
Purified love
Constancy purifies mistakes