The Cocteau Twins

I’m going to introduce you to a word you’ve probably never heard before: glossolalia. This word means speaking in tongues. A very recent creation, dating to late 1800s, it was a word invented by linguists to understand why vocabulary which we normally understand, can sound so incomprehensible or unrecognizable when spoken or sung a certain way. By varying the tempo, meter, accent, and intonation of a string of words, a speaker/singer could give off the appearance of a melody but do it in such a way that rendered the actual known language indecipherable. For many religions, if someone was able to converse in these new tongues, those gifted people were tapping into some angelic or spiritual language. When you felt the spirit move you, the best among us would let the words come out however they may be, in whatever way it maybe, all with the end being that the Good Lord’s or higher spirit’s presence would be felt by those witnessing. Now, what does this all have to do with the Cocteau Twins? In a way, 1984’s Treasure conclusively proved that they were ready to illuminate something few had felt in musical history.

But first, allow me start you off with some verses from the Bible, that I hope you hold in your noggin for a bit. From 1 Corinthians 14:18:19:

18 I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all;
19 however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind, that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue.

Let’s begin in 1979. Back then, two young Scots from Grangemouth one Robin Guthrie on guitars, and one Will Heggie on bass (who we will forget from now on) itching to start a band, met a young Elizabeth Fraser at a local disco. Robbie, smitten by this girl, instantly took a liking to her tastes and demeanor. This shared communion in listening to the music of Kate Bush, and early goth acts like Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party and early post-rock luminaries like Dif Juz allowed them a certain  path to follow for their decidedly shy personalities to do something creatively.

Jumping at the first chance they could to join a label of one of their idols, they signed with Ivo Russell’s 4AD label. 4AD at that moment in time, was known as the premier issuer of dark, moody records to go with their dark, moody bands. Sensing that they might get some leeway for their knowingly lack of musical chops, they debuted with 1982’s Garlands a dark and moody record, of very derivative post-punk music. Sounding exactly what you would think it would sound like; largely bass driven, drum machine backed, thin, clean angular guitar melodies met with repetitive brooding vocals, the debut started them off on the wrong path.

More interesting video, audio, and images from the early years, on this board I curated at Pinterest…
Follow Jesus Olivas’s board Cocteau Twins – The early years. on Pinterest.

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Robin and Elizabeth, seeing how massively it flopped and how soundly it was panned realized they had to go a different direction. A series of EPs that followed Lullabies, and Peppermint Pig started to hint at what they needed to work on. For Robin, it meant that he needed to use more effects and experiment with his tone, both to hide his playing deficiencies and stand apart from the 4AD herd. For Elizabeth, it was into working on her vocal range more. Knowing how bad of a lyricist she could be, she wanted to make sure her vocals could make up for those shortcomings. Will, well, he wasn’t quite ready to change direction, so, rather thank stick with a sinking ship, he quit the band, and kept on tugging at that post-punk chicken with Lowlife.

Leaving Robin and Elizabeth, now a couple, to fend for themselves, made new look Cocteau Twins either swim they could have sunk. 1982’s Head Over Heels, showed them acclimating to a new sound they were developing. You could say it was ethereal, but at that moment it was Robin trying desperately to overwhelm the ears with a bank of effects-addled guitar playing. Using the barest of drum machine sounds, he’d create a baroque-like heavily reverberating sonic space where Elizabeth could use her range to sing rather than chant or scream out lyrics. Not entirely good, but a minor triumph that could slot into any of your goth friend’s favorite record collection, it showed hints of what could work for them.

The seedling of a new singing style that Elizabeth showed here was something else. Although even more incomprehensible than in the past, something about its atmosphere and phrasing suited the more gossamer sound that Robin was shaping. Little by little, through EPs like Sunburst and Snowblind, and the Spangle-Maker you could sense something interesting happening. By fortuitous chance, gifted multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde, who helped them record a visionary cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” (a distant to apostle to what’s coming) also helped spur Liz to head in a less gloomy direction. It appeared that Elizabeth was forcing Robin to slow down his playing and in doing so was introducing nuance and romanticism to their vision. In songs like “From the Flagstones”, or “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops”, most tellingly you hear Elizabeth start to integrate something truly Scottish into her vocals, the Puirt à beul.

This way of singing which allowed the vocalist to take the role of the rhythm maker, allowed one to drop or say certain vowels or consonant in ways that rendered them indecipherable but tempo setting…all in service to the fiddler or pipe player, or vice versa. Lingering on consonants or vowels from words or phrases, although known to her, but mysterious to us (but not if writ down!), allowed Elizabeth to sound like nothing else. Damo Suzuki from Can, in his own way, in albums like Future Days and tracks like “Bel Air” had hinted that certain types of feelings can be derived from stressing certain things, now Elizabeth stood at the precipice of discovering what it was.

On 1984’s Treasure:
“…I’ve always detested Treasure. Not because of the record, but because of the vibe at the time, when we were pushed into all that kind of arty-farty Pre-Raphaelite bullshit. And so I was just really ashamed of that record.”Robin Guthrie to Lime Lizard magazine, 1993.

Truly, unlike anything in its time, Treasure was rightfully where everything came together. This is where we go back to the biblical verse mentioned way above at the start of this post. Interpretation is a very shaky thing. That first verse, the one that many shysters use to justify charming snakes, or babble for untold hours on gospel with little room for reflection, is clarified by the meaning of the second. Something about how its not how many words one can say that matters, but which words one chooses to say and how they say it, that does. Illumination will reveal itself even if you only use five words. How you convey their meaning, this could be through stresses, pauses, accentuation, or time is much more infinite than regurgitation.

Treasure album cover.

Melody Maker’s Steve Sutherland in his review of Treasure opined then, with tremendous praise, after hearing the album that “surely this band is the voice of God” which on the face sounds like unbelievable, starts to reveal itself to be remarkably prescient. Recorded in a month, this was the album where Elizabeth was the focus of the song and this brief amount of time allowed her to rein in some of the useless things that had been floating around her. Touching deep veins of upward emotions, Elizabeth presented multi-layered vocal arrangements rarely heard of anywhere before in their catalog, and in myriad ways that ventured far beyond the dark, gloom of the past. Likewise, Robin and Simon begrudgingly aided her by creating this lush Neo-Baroque sound milking all the bits of Cathedratic ghosts in the machines from all their delay and echo pedals (something future shoegazers like My Bloody Valentine would be influenced by). The Cocteau Twins titling all the ten tracks after people, or buildings with names that sounded beautiful or mythical…this small bit of thing lets in the grander scope of the album. Bright mysteries the ones where we really can’t explain why they makes us feel what we feel.

The first half of the album kicks off with the warm opener “Ivo” dedicated to the 4AD label head. Guitars that sound like clarion bells, combine with almost human-like drums, to join the now truly ethereal sounding vocals of Liz. From now on we’ll only be able to pick out bits of words, and never truly going hear the lyrics they use…but somehow it won’t matter. When you hear “Lorelei”, a song with actual verses or choruses that top out at three or five words tops in the written word (click here for lyrics), but sound like one truly powerful vibration of glossolia, that’s when you start to realize that there was something missing in Liz’s music before…you could say it was love. Now they were realizing how important it was to connect with their listeners instead of just navel gaze.

Tracks like “Beatrix” with its pseudo-Victorian-era mandolin strum and intricate vocal arrangement, flow into the organ-like torch balladry of “Persephone”, folk-gaze of sorts preparing you for the real revelation “Pandora”. “Pandora” a tour de force for Liz, shows her scaling up a vocal mountain and coming back with the a stone writ classic. Mutating all sorts of “f” words into her own language, she does what few others have attempted to do. W. B. Yeats, Dante Alighieri, and Alfred Tennyson, for example, all tried to use poetry that reconfigured known vocabulary into a new language that could speak to something regular words as they heard it couldn’t achieve. In Dante’s case it was to get to an origin language, of his divination, before the tower of Babel’s fragmentation ruined it all (…including Latin). He did so by attempting to make a poem so beautiful, with words so perfect, that the rest of the world would drop their language and adopt his revelation. No one knows if Dante ever managed to finish that poem.

Keep that in mind, as you cross all the modern hymnals that follow, as you round the way to the end, and step into the track of the day (and my favorite), the final track of the album, the only one without any actual lyrics, all full of made up musical language, “Domino”, can you imagine what could have been going on Dante’s head if he heard this lucid dream song written by Elizabeth? There’s something very illuminating that Liz said recently about why she writes how she writes:

On lyrics and singing: “Fraser sees making music as inseparable from her emotions. She has always struggled to write lyrics, she says, but suddenly something will click and she “goes with the sound and the joy” – that’s why she sings sounds and words that have no meaning, of which she can only make sense later. As she puts it, “I can’t act. I can’t lie.” — as told to The Guardian.

Folklore has something about it that remains timeless, but certain truths are always inevitable. Hopefully, Liz graces us with that voice again sometime soon. For now, neo-folk keeps moving somewhere bigger soon…

Listen to Treasure at Spotify.

Bonus track, another gem from Elizabeth, one of her contributions to Massive Attack’s Mezzanine: