“Mood Music for the Arty”
- By Don Shewey
- 7 Days
- Oct 1988
Outside of the 15 or 20 top-selling acts at any given time, the pop audience consists mainly of cults. Some cults are larger than others. many artists can sell half a million copies of every album and fill a 1000-seat theater in 15 cities once a year; others are lucky to rack up record sales of 10,000 and sell out two shows at the Bottom Line every other year. Still, a cult’s a cult, whether you’re Leonard Cohen or Hüsker Dü.
But the size of the audience is no reflection on its ardor; if anything, the two frequently occur in inverse proportions. An excellent case in point is Cocteau Twins, who have amassed one of the most devoted cults in all of British pop specifically by hewing to an artistic credo that rejects conventional formulas for commercial success. They hardly ever tour. They hardly ever make videos. They rarely do interviews. They don’t have a flashy look; their faces never appear on their record jackets. You can’t dance to their rhythms. Most of the time you can’t understand the words of their songs.
Other bands who share these anti-commercial attitudes shield themselves from the unsympathetic with a wall of noise: a rebellious skronk that merges synergistically with raging hormones but nauseates the faint of heart. The paradox of Cocteau Twins’ cult fame is that the group’s central appeal is sheer beauty—the elegant abstraction of its album covers, the signature sound of Robin Guthrie’s shimmering, thickly textured guitar work, and especially the otherwordly mixture of madrigal delicacy and pathological passion in Elizabeth Fraser’s singing.
With the tools of rock, Cocteau Twins create music that has the evocative, impressionistic qualities of poetry. Yet these are neither art-school veterans nor self-consciously literary types. Now 26 and 24, Guthrie and Fraser met as teenagers in the Scottish seaside town of Grangemouth and, without any professional training, formed a band with bass player Will Heggie (who has since been replaced by Simon Raymonde). They called themselves Cocteau Twins and, like the orphaned siblings in Les Enfants Terribles, proceeded to create a fantasy world of their own invention with few recognizable antecedents. With the first money they made, they bought their own studio, the better to control their unique sound. Their rare concerts (always with drums on tape, as in the studio) impressed viewers with their strangeness. One critic wrote, “Liz Fraser quietly commands attention, her stage movements restricted to occasional beatings of her left breast and the pulling off of imaginary gloves from her hands.” And although Fraser insists that 99 percent of what she sings in English and although her quirky titles (“Oomingmak,” “Kookaburra,” “Ella Megalast Burls Forever”) betray a fondness for poring over antique dictionaries, most listeners experience her lyrics as the musical equivalent of idioglossia, the secret language twins talk to each other.
In England, Cocteau Twins’ initial success, however modest, was seen as a triumph for the independent music scene, the postpunk grass-roots movement of small record labels created to promote alternatives to the mass-market commercial pop that dominates the charts and the airwaves. Geographically circumscribed and in a state of perpetual economic depression, England is a perfect hothouse for pop trend-mongering, and in the ’80s it has nurtured the simultaneous phenomena of hyperpop and antipop. On one hand, fashion-conscious hype-meisters like Malcolm McLaren, Paul Morley (the rock journalist who invented Frankie Goes to Hollywood), and the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant—prime exponents of instantly obsolescent, escapist disco-pop—have turned pop’s star-making machinery back on itself, expending as much creative energy on manipulating the media as on making music. On the other hand, bands like the Smiths, New Order, and Cocteau Twins have become cultural heroes by making moody, deeply personal, and/or politically conscious music that purposely defies conventional ideas of what’s commercial.
“Most music is contrived and aimed at a particular market. It’s not heartfelt in any way,” says Ivo Watts-Russell, whose eclectic 4AD label has released all Cocteau Twins’ records to date. A former record-store clerk, Ivo founded 4 A.D. because he felt “there are enough people out there frustrated by what they’re given on a daily basis, who actively look for better music.” The informal guru of antipop, Ivo has made his label a haven for intelligent, unfashionable music of all kinds.
In the United States, this music mainly finds its audience on college campuses, which are the most likely places to find inquiring minds sufficiently motivated to seek out “progressive” radio stations, British fanzines, and shops that sell imported records. Cocteau Twins first penetrated that market in 1986 with The Pink Opaque, a selection of cuts from previous albums and EPs that is still the best introduction to the group. Early cuts like the droogy “Wax and Wane” and the pounding “Musette and Drums” are less distinctive—they bear echoes of the grinding guitars and sinister affect that make, say, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Siouxsie and the Banshees so popular—while such pretty, meditative songs as “The Spangle Maker” and “From the Flagstones” (two of Fraser’s best performances) indicate the direction Cocteau Twins would move toward on, for instance, the gorgeous all-acoustic album Victorialand.
While college radio remains their strongest source of support, Cocteau Twins are widening their American audience. Their latest album, Blue Bell Knoll, is the first to be distributed by a major American label, Capitol Records, and since it was released two months ago it has already sold twice as many copies as any of their previous albums.
Of the eight albums Cocteau Twins have recorded (including a collaboration with ambient-jazz pianist Harold Budd), Blue Bell Knoll has the most pleasant, cheerful veneer—characterized by a previously unheard dash of marimba and the absence of broody, bass-heavy tunes—as well as the most sparkling production. Fraser’s multitrack vocals frequently produce sounds that you’d swear no naked human voice could make. On the title cut, the words’ elongated openings and abrupt endings suggest the vocal track has been played backward; the fast, peculiar invervalic leaps on “Athol-Brose” sound like digital samplings. But no: nothing here is electronically tricked up.
Yet it unfolds on a typically dreamy soundscape. Guthrie’s pedal-treated guitars create a swirling atmosphere for Fraser’s quivering soprano, which trills syllables that slide around pools of meaning without ever dipping in, making shapes that never quite resolve into images. Listening, you make up your own. “Cico Buff” sounds exactly the way a cloud cover looks from above through an airplane window: floating yet in motion. “Suckling the Mender” suggests a nursing mother in a rocking chair, happily pealing singsong melodies to a peaceful infant. Childhood could be the album’s theme: one song is titled “For Phoebe Still a Baby,” while other titles dissolve into baby talk—“The Itchy Globo Blow,” “Spooning Good Singing Gum.” And as ever it’s possible to discern in Guthrie’s rippling, aquatic guitar sounds and Fraser’s gull-like soaring and chirping the legacy of growing up on the seashore.
Cocteau Twins’ dreamy, drifty, at times hallucinogenic music has the alluring mysteriousness of a magic act. And as with any good magic act, you want to know how it’s done. But the magician doesn’t want you to know. Arriving for breakfast with them a couple of months ago, I knew full well how notoriously unrevealing Cocteau Twins could be in interviews, so I had my strategy all laid out: I would simply ask them to decipher the names of some of their songs.
“Otterley”? “It’s just a name I liked,” said Fraser, a plain, chubby, bespectacled lass, far from the glamorous priestess her voice might conjure.
“Aloysius”? “The teddy bear in Brideshead,” muttered bass player Simon Raymonde, a rumpled, unshaven bear of a boy himself.
“Aikea-Guinea”? Fraser was slightly more forthcoming. “It just means flat shells that have been bleached and smoothed out by the sea and the sand.” Then she giggled nervously. “I’ve just ruined it for you by telling you what it’s all about, haven’t I?”
What about “Quisquose”? “Um, well, that’s actually…” She giggled again. “It’s a word you use to describe, um…oh, God, this is so embarrassing.” She laughed and twitched a little, her hands picking at each other in her lap, then flying up to her face. “Um, oh, oh, no, it’s just, um a word you would use to describe a woman who’s, uh…um, how shall I explain it actually? If you look it up…” More giggling. More twitching. “I can’t explain it,” she said apologetically. “I can’t explain it. It’s not an unusual word, I don’t think. I’m pathetic, I’m really pathetic, I can’t talk to people!”
According to Murray’s English Dictionary (1910 edition), quisquose means “difficult to deal with or settle, ticklish, ‘kittle.’”
Cocteau Twins are the latest in a long, honorable, peculiarly British tradition of eccentric, romantic pop singer-songwriters. They share with such “difficult” predecessors as the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, Brian Eno, and Kate Bush a sensibility steeped in British literature and mythology as well as an artistic ambitiousness (you could say pretentiousness) that expresses itself more frequently in enigmatic wordplay than in the earnest confessionalism of similarly inclined American pop artists.
But Cocteau Twins are also a new breed of postmodern, perhaps post-literate, balladeers. They make no intellectual claims for themselves; they work entirely on instinct, like primitive artists. They are not social beings: they are primarily studio artists rather than live performers. They care passionately about their music but shun publicity and personal fame. In the Orwellian, media-saturated, no-secrets world of pop music, this attitude makes Cocteau Twins heretics—and the intractable mystery of their music that much more attractive. ▣