“More doom and gloom or an unrecognised pop solution?”
- By Jonh Wilde
Being used, as we are, to bands verbalising at length about their motivations and inspirations, it is unnerving at first to encounter Falkirk’s Cocteau Twins. If you have been charmed by their intoxicating shadowed spell, you might presume that behind that vast swirling haze would be an eagerness to lift the veil from their enticing mysteries.
In the Cocteau Twins, though, there is a glaring absence of any worldly aim:
“When we formed,” explains guitarist Robin, “There was no contrived idea about the kind of sound we wanted or the ideas that would be in the songs: it began as a gentle, melodic, sparse sound and developed from there. It’s always difficult to discuss the band in any other way than the obvious because we think so little about it, really.”
In the attempt to define the might of the Cocteaux, there is the risk of being caught between two extremes—treating them as casual fun entertainment on one hand or as a too-serious and elusive creating on the other. Between these two extremes lies a lifetime and the Cocteaux sometimes get speechless between the two poles. Quite simply, they offer preciously few clues. Their strength and infectious vitality hover between truth and fantasy and its great fascination lies in its misty, fragile form. The attraction of the indistinct images that they throw into the air lies in their impenetrable strangeness. It’s the kind of strength that the Banshees should have maintained after “Staircase,” but they lost the edge; The Cocteaux, though, are one of those rare one-offs, sounding nothing too particular.
Robin again: “Up to now the three of us have kept fairly anonymous, but that’s not of our own making. The whole question of a mystery/intrigue and what we do is not something that we are aware of. We’ve not bent over backwards to give anybody an angle… Neither have we deliberately tried to remain obscure. A lot of the time we’ve been written about as some dark brooding noise, but we don’t see ourselves like that at all really. It’s more a mix of light and dark, if anything, but it’s impossible to pin down. It’s not as if we strive to create something that is different, any more than we try not to sound like anyone else.”
The Cocteau Twins fascinate me because they can be good, pure fun while at the same time they can capture the nervous edge of love, hope, and a dark sense of fear. They have the sinister spell of desire and the milling chaos of wide-eyed confusion. Their three releases so far on 4AD have been a convincing demonstration of their potency and spirit.
In 1982, their debut LP “Garlands” and their first 12-inch single [“Lullabies”] were amongst the best releases of the year—their inspiring uplifting dense cloud of sound inter-mingling light and dark with shattering effect. This year has seen another twelve-inch [“Peppermint Pig”], which has rightfully been a regular feature near the top of the Alternative Charts. The mighty sound revolves around the constant thud of a drum machine; coiling around that is Will’s bass, somber and introspective, providing the shades of grey in extreme contrast to Robin’s sharp, jagged, discordant guitar shapes that splash about haphazardly. Elizabeth’s strained vocal provides the final element—disrupting the random order as she knocks language out of shape with her strange inflections, and their subtle sense of grave beauty.
Will points out that “The lyrics have been termed ‘obscure’ and ‘vague’ but we’ve never seen them like that. We get quite a lot of letters asking us to write the words down; they seem to be difficult to grasp, but that hasn’t really been intentional—it’s just Elizabeth’s style.”
Perhaps not intentional, but the Cocteaux do sometimes seem guilty of a willful elusiveness—one of my few doubts.
At the time of writing, they are half-way through a tour of Britain and Europe as guests of OMD. I wondered how much they hope to have gained by the end of it.
“We’ll probably be wondering that ourselves,” answers Elizabeth. “The effect will probably be that the whole purpose of what we are doing and where we are heading will be confused somewhat. We were invited on the tour as OMD liked our records; we agreed at first simply because we thought it would be good exposure. We haven’t gone down too well in a lot of places, but it’s been good experience.”
Perhaps one reason why they have not overwhelmed the crowds on the tour lies in their lack of immediacy. Bearing in mind the kind of audience that OMD attract these days, the Cocteaux perhaps lack that abrupt pop appeal. On “Peppermint Pig,” producer Alan Rankine (of Associates fame) seemed to work on commercial potential in their sound, aiming for a more precise, coherent whole, but unfortunately achieving something just a little less distinct than their previous releases—much to the band’s displeasure.
One other problem that the Cocteaux might face if they want to broaden their appeal is with self-imposed confines of their format. For the moment, the way in which the entire sound relies on the perpetual beat of the drum machines gives their swirling, dizzy, bewildered dance its driving energy. For the long-term, though, won’t that format prove restrictive?
“We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of changing our format at any time,” concedes Robin, “but we don’t consider it restrictive at present. But we never think that far ahead anyway…”
The problem with using a drum machine is that it tends to limit a live band’s spontaneity. The current Cocteau’s set varies little from night to night, and though the songs themselves are strong enough to transcend any barriers, it will be interesting to see how far they can extend the sound within their limits. At the moment everything has to revolve around that drum machine thud.
“We don’t see that as a problem really, as long as we continue to bring in new songs,” Robin argues. “But that is where we are falling short at the moment, because there never seems to be time to write new material, everything is happening so quickly.”
As the Cocteau Twins have played virtually the same set for six months now, it is crucial that newer, stronger material is introduced to push them forward again.
Hail the Cocteaux… part of their charm is their unconscious sway from the typical, conventional “rock” approach with not a trace of pretentiousness. They have been careful to avoid jumping aboard the “race against rockism” bandwagon, to consciously avoid a “Rock” influence/inspiration (Wylie’s “rockism” notion being taken far too literally—because if Blood and Roses, X-Mal Deutschland, Zerra I, the remnants of Southern Death Cult and Spear of Destiny career right across the area that represents the fading rock dream, picking at the scattered debris, then they, along with the Cocteau Twins, surely hint at a brand new restoration period—a healthily perverse renewal.) The best “Rock” music has always been that with an unsettling perversity, a corrupting, insinuating sense of challenge, a malignant cancer. The thrill of the chase from the Doors, the Velvets, Syd Barrett, Floyd through to Bowie, Television, Banshees, Magazine, Joy Division and The Fall… All have had that “Lurking Doubt”—a disrespect for the banal, for complacency, for the squalid decay in the refusal to move on. Sometimes, it is a heart of darkness, sometimes a glorious exorcism of the senses, sometimes a shimmering celebration of love, life and a lingering excitement. The Cocteau Twins often suggest that kind of achievement, but for now, my faith lies in their present potential blossoming in the future.
Robin: “There is a sense of challenge in being in the band and it is exciting to be in the Cocteau Twins but always for different reasons: A year ago, the prospect of rehearsing in a proper studio was thrilling, then other things obviously became more important. But at the moment, the actual purpose of what we do and what motivates us to do it is not often considered—perhaps it will begin to be questioned more as we develop. There always has to be an element of challenge to make it worthwhile though, to spur us on to the next step. At present, we can never talk too much about the actual content of the songs, their mood, themes, their whole angle. It’s not as if we worry about being misinterpreted anyway—perhaps there is something good if people interpret the songs their own way.”
After the OMD tour, the Cocteaux will be busy writing new songs and recording a new album, which should be ready for their own tour in mid-October. There’s this strange kind of perfection about them that has nothing to do with a technical cleanness but something to do with a vague feeling of discovery, innocence and a secret, smiling knowledge of the mystery of fascination. They balance (perhaps precariously) on the threshold of their enigma… their sound nervously teeters and tremors on the brink of its own potential… and you wonder how far that can take it… and if you love the magic of the Cocteau Twins like I do… you worry because you sense that they must break loose… break new ground, recapture the beauty and purity that has already passed.
Therefore, they arrive at the crossroads edging closer to exhausting the possibilities of their present sound and approach, needing now to forge ahead, to toy with new ideas. At the moment, they just might take your breath away with their flood of potent, magical agitation, that nervous, flickering flame of sweet desire. They will grow stronger and instill the BITE in their music which, at the moment, only whispers. We are left, for now, with the hidden promise, while the rest is left to them… and their curious, fascinating noise. ▣