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Reviews of Blue Bell Knoll and Heaven or Las Vegas

  • By Stephen Deusner
  • Pitchfork
  • 16-Jul 2014

Cocteau Twins’ fifth and sixth albums are seeing deluxe vinyl reissues this week. These two releases—which were their last for 4AD—present the boundary-pushing innovators as first and foremost a pop band. And pop rarely sounds as transformative and as transfixing as it does here.

It’s impossible to make out most of the lyrics on the title track to the Cocteau Twins’ 1990 album, Heaven or Las Vegas. Over Robin Guthrie’s shimmery, shivery guitar strum, singer Elizabeth Fraser bends her notes into mysterious shapes. She coos and squawks, mews and barks, murmurs and wails, as though singing in a new language. One minute she sounds like an opera singer, the next like a mother baby-talking to her new daughter. The effect can be dizzying, and the illegibility of her performance only makes it more, not less, human. Yet, a few words do stand out, primarily that title phrase: “Heaven or Las Vegas.” The Cocteau Twins’ music has always sounded otherworldly, and their many fans would certainly describe it—and rightly so—as heavenly.

But Las Vegas? It stands out as an odd, jarring reference. Their fantastical music would seem to brook nothing quite so earthly, so garish, so thisworldly as Sin City, which hauls unlikely baggage into “Heaven or Las Vegas”: gambling, corruption, tacky tourism, and cheesy crooning. But if we forget everything we know about the city and reduce Las Vegas to its atomic elements—millions upon billions of lights—perhaps we might see heaven in the radiance. This is essentially how the Cocteau Twins’ music works: Fraser’s voice doesn’t behave the way a pop singer’s voice typically behaves, nor does Guthrie’s guitar deliver the usual melody or rhythm. Along with bass player/keyboardist Simon Raymonde, whose contributions shouldn’t be discounted, they found new ways to use old instruments in the 1980s, in the process devising a unique and wholly beguiling sound. If punk had chased beauty instead of glorious ugliness, if goth had emphasized light rather than fetishize darkness, those movements might have sounded like the Cocteau Twins, who had contemporaries but no real peers. Somehow, there is immense aggression and subversion in the sheer loveliness of this music, which makes it more than just art for art’s sake.

Most people in America, however, didn’t know any of this in the 1980s, as the decade was almost over before the band officially released any music in the States. Ever since Guthrie and Fraser had shown up on 4AD Records’ doorstep like orphaned goths in 1982 [NB: 1981], the Scots quickly developed both a sound and an audience in the UK, culminating in the 1984 album Treasure, which was the first to truly capture the wildness of Fraser’s vocals and Guthrie’s ambitiously skewed arrangements. By the late ’80s, they were successful enough to play increasingly cavernous London venues, to build their own 24-track studio, to rent practice space in Pete Townshend’s building. There was also friction between Fraser and Guthrie, who had been a couple throughout the life of the Cocteau Twins. Due to the pressure of the business and especially to Guthrie’s rampant drug abuse, their marriage was fraying. But they still made beautiful music together, and they signed a deal with Capitol Records to distribute their fifth album, 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll, in America.

That album is one of two getting a deluxe vinyl reissue this week via 4AD. It’s certainly a pivotal album in their career, but not necessarily one of their best. Did the Cocteau Twins tame some of their wilder elements for American audiences? Or did the prospect of reaching a whole new continent of ears even enter their minds when they recorded these songs? Blue Bell Knoll sounds minimalist, workmanlike at times, never quite matching the rapturous invention of Treasure. It’s their airiest, cottoniest album, with an enticing use of space on the production but with hooks that sound oddly restrained. As a result, it can sound as monochromatic as its album cover.

On the other hand, its general dismissal by critics and fans as a lesser Cocteau Twins album may have less to do with the album itself and more to do with the fact that it is bookended by better and more ecstatically creative works. There are moments of disarming beauty on Blue Bell Knoll—the melting keyboards on “Cico Buff,” the lush vocal layering of “Athol-Brose,” the shooting-stars opening of “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” Raymonde’s syncopated bass trudge of “The Itchy Glowblo Blow,” the whatever that is at the end of “Spooning Good Singing Gum” (I think it might be a herd of lovelorn goats playing saxophones). But the standout is “Carolyn’s Fingers,” which would become the Cocteau Twins’ first American single. The band never utilized its rhythm section to better effect: Against Guthrie’s crisp guitar line, that churning momentum pushes Fraser’s vocals to greater and greater heights, her unexpected swoops and eloquently rolled consonants creating a bewildering indie-pop aria.

Even as the band soared commercially and creatively, personally they suffered. Between the release of Blue Bell Knoll and the recording of Heaven or Las Vegas, Fraser gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter, yet Guthrie remained deep in the throes of drug addiction, which made him paranoid and angry. Raymonde mourned the death of his father. Suddenly the stakes for the Cocteau Twins seemed impossibly high. “Fraser named the album Heaven or Las Vegas [as] a suggestion of music versus commerce, or perhaps a gamble, one last throw of the dice,” Martin Aston writes in Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, implying that the band was close to imploding.

Instead, they turned all that turmoil and uncertainty into the best album of their career. Heaven or Las Vegas explodes in Technicolor from the first melty guitar chords on “Cherry-Coloured Funk.” Every note sounds like a new and richer shade of indigo and scarlet and violet than the previous one, and it doesn’t fade until closer “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” descends into silence. If Blue Bell Knoll is spare and ambient, Heaven is supersaturated: lush without being vulgar, luxuriant without being indulgent. Tellingly, some lyrics bubble up to the surface, often loaded with personal meaning: “cherry,” “perfection,” “burn this madhouse down.” On a song called “Pitch the Baby,” ostensibly written for—or at least sung to—the couple’s infant daughter, Fraser repeats, “I’m so happy to care for you, I only want to love you,” as a sweet lullaby. We may not always be able to understand her lyrics, but that doesn’t mean they’re not important. In fact, her lyrics would never be more vital or confessional than they are on Heaven or Las Vegas, which lends the music added emotional and conceptual heft.

What’s particularly remarkable about the album is how compact it is: All but two of these 10 tracks clock in around three-and-a-half minutes, and the whole thing is over and done with in a mere 38 minutes. That succinctness may have something to do with Raymonde’s increasing role in the group. His bass playing, especially on “Pitch the Baby” and “Fotzepolitic,” not only adds to the texture and, yes, the groove of the music, but also gingerly anchors these songs: He prevents them from flying off into the ether, but never lets them grow rigid or staid. The result is an album that perfectly balances ambition with accessibility. Together, these two releases—which were their last for 4AD—present the Cocteau Twins as first and foremost a pop band, and pop rarely sounds as transformative and as transfixing as it does here. (Blue Bell Knoll: 8.3 out 10 / Heaven or Las Vegas: 10 out of 10 & Best New Reissue) ▣

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Reviews of <cite>Blue Bell Knoll</cite> and <cite>Heaven or Las Vegas</cite>
Blue Bell Knoll (4AD, 1988)
Reviews of <cite>Blue Bell Knoll</cite> and <cite>Heaven or Las Vegas</cite>
Heaven or Las Vegas (4AD, 1990)