Not far from where I grew up lies Grangemouth, one of the ugliest places in the world. Home to an oil refinery that looks like a far Eastern mega-city shrunk down to miniature size, with constantly burning fires and clouds of steam that look like dark, sulfurous smoke, it's a vision of hell. I’ve always found it incredible a band as beautiful as Cocteau Twins came from somewhere so unpleasant. But perhaps there’s no contradiction at all.
Cocteau Twins were formed by Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie in 1979, with Elizabeth Fraser joining after Guthrie spotted her dancing at a local nightclub. Their name isn't a reference to French artist and author Jean Cocteau. Instead, it's taken from a song called “Cocteau Twins” by Johnny and the Self Abusers (aka Simple Minds). Their early music was very much of its time; debut album Garlands (1982, re-released in March 2020) is moody post-punk with a clear influence of bands like The Birthday Party, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Cocteau Twins wouldn't hit upon their trademark sound of shimmering guitars and ethereal vocals until their sophomore LP Head Over Heels, in 1983.
As Fraser and Guthrie entered into a romantic relationship, they honed their sound throughout the 80s before achieving a degree of mainstream success with 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll and its lead single “Carolyn’s Fingers.” After three more albums, all of which were well received (with Fraser being described by one overly keen critic as "The Voice of God"), they disbanded in 1997, owing in large part to the breakdown of Guthrie and Fraser’s relationship. It was not an amicable split: As recently as 2005, Fraser pulled out of a planned reunion at Coachella festival, which would have earned them £1.5 million each, because she not could bear to share a stage with her former lover.
Following the breakup of the band, Fraser provided vocals for a number of tracks on Massive Attack's album Mezzanine, including hit single “Teardrop” (has any other artist contributed more to the "good songs to listen to after a heavy night" canon?). Meanwhile, Robin Guthrie took the blueprint of the Cocteau Twins in ever more experimental directions, releasing a number of instrumental albums as well as writing music for films. His score for Mysterious Skin, which he worked on with American composer and former Cocteau Twins collaborator Harold Budd, is both gorgeous and sad.
They were loved by Prince, adored by Madonna (even though their bassist once described the latter as a “real slagbag”), yet Cocteau Twins kept a notoriously low profile. There was no political posturing, no iconoclasm or easily definable aesthetic. They had very little of what makes bands interesting, outside of the music. They're ineffable, both musically and in terms of the personas they presented.
Fraser once mocked the attempts of music journalists to describe their music: "What I find really funny is the way they always put 'you can't analyze their music or describe it in words but anyway here goes: it's a radiant ethereal dooda dooda whatever…'" As someone who Googled "ethereal synonyms" while writing this piece, I can’t help but feel personally attacked.
So You Want to Get Into… Moody, Gothic, Post-Punk Cocteau Twin?
So, Cocteau Twins’ debut album Garlands ruins the "isn’t it wild that the Cocteau Twins came from a horrible place?" thesis by very much sounding like it was written in Grangemouth. It’s claustrophobic and discordant and the moments of transcendence are few and far between. The chorus of “Blind Dumb Deaf” offers the first flash of the yearning that characterized Cocteau Twins' later music, but there’s still something off-kilter about it. Meanwhile, “The Hollow Men” squanders the promise of its snappy opening bass line with more plodding discordance. For me, the album feels a little oppressive. This is my subjective opinion and I have friends who consider the album among their best. But yeah, it sounds like you’ve got lost in an oil refinery and would really just like to find your way out.
“Feathers Oar Lands” from follow-up EP Lullabies stands up a lot better. Is that… a riff? A muscular bass-line? Are the Cocteau Twins rocking out? Yes—and I love it. It’s perhaps the only Cocteau Twins song you could start a mosh pit to, albeit a fey, wistful one. You also hear Elizabeth Fraser sounding kind of aloof, which makes for an interesting contrast with her later, more earnest, style.
“Peppermint Pig”, the eponymous title track of an 1983 EP, also sounds surprisingly aggressive. Given how dreamy their later output is, it’s easy to forget that The Cocteau Twins emerged in a post-punk context, but here it’s really apparent. It sounds like Siouxsie and the Banshees, if that’s what you’re into.
Playlist: "Feathers Oar-Blades" / "Blind Dumb Deaf" / "Peppermint Pig" / "Hazel" / "Wax and Wane" / "The Hollow Men" / "Garlands" / "When Mama Was Moth" / "But I'm Not" / "Musette and Drums" / "Laughlines"
So You Want to Get Into… Fun, Wacky, Playful Cocteau Twins?
Has a band this good ever had such ridiculous song titles? “Fluffy Tufts?” “Frou-frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires?” And just what exactly is a “Great Spangled Fritillary” when it’s at home? Despite their earnest reputation, the Cocteau Twins are sometimes quite silly. This playlist showcases them in this mode. It's full of weird, fun songs where Elizabeth Fraser really lets loose, and songs to which you could do an interpretive dance.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand what Elizabeth Fraser is singing. Rather than being an accidental quirk, the ambiguity of her lyrics is the result of a considered artistic decision.
Discussing her songwriting process for the 1986 album Victorialand, Fraser said, “The lyrics are words I’ve found by going through dictionaries and books in languages I don’t understand. The words don’t have any meaning at all until they’re sung." In fact, her unique method of songwriting derived in large part from a lack of confidence in her ability to write conventionally: “Looking back, [it] was a tool to help get things out. I didn't have the confidence just to sit down and write something. I was always running away from that.”
The fact that Fraser’s lyrics sound like gibberish can have a joyous effect. Take “Orange Appled,” with its looping bass line and ecstatic vocals — this is the Cocteau Twins you want to listen to while stoating through a park in shorts on a sunny day. “Pitch the Baby” features one of Fraser’s most satisfying, unrestrained vocal performances. The tone of "Multifoiled" is perhaps too somber to truly fit in with this category, but it’s also undeniably kind of funky.
Taken from 1984’s Treasure LP, “Ivo” is so grand and operatic that it becomes slightly farcical, an effect not helped by the almost yodel-like backing vocals. Still, it’s great. Please forgive me but I have also included their partly terrible, partly charming cover of “Frosty the Snowman”. If nothing else, it's a testament to the fact Cocteau Twins don’t take themselves too seriously.
Playlist: "Orange Appled" / "Pitch The Baby" / "Multifoiled" / "Ivo" / "Wolf In The Breast" / "Those Eyes, That Mouth" / "Mellonella" / "Frosty The Snowman" / "Suckling The Mender"
So You Want to Get Into… Ambient, Experimental, Perhaps Even Instrumental Cocteau Twins?
I’ve never thought of the Cocteau Twins as a particularly erotic band but in the 1980s they were inundated with fans sending them home-made porn videos set to their music. To each their own! If you’re absolutely determined to shag someone to the Cocteau Twins though, this playlist might be your best bet—although be prepared for an occasionally unsettling vibe.
It features songs from across their career but draws heavily from their two most ambient albums. The first, 1986’s The Moon and the Melodies, is a partly instrumental collaboration with composer Harold Budd. Victorialand, released the same year, is a stripped-back affair in which Cocteau Twins' characteristically expansive soundscapes are often reduced to Fraser’s vocals and a single guitar line. From the former album, it’s remarkable how fresh “Why Do You Love Me” still sounds. With its wailing, siren-like feedback, it reminds me of Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under the Skin. I’ve included a few tracks here but, really, the entirety of The Moon and the Melodies is worth a listen.
Songs from later in their career like “Essence”, “Rilkean Heart” and “Evangeline” are more conventionally melodic but share a dreamy, spaced-out quality. Finally, although it’s not strictly speaking a Cocteau Twins track, I’ve included This Mortal Coil’s cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren”, on the basis that it’s one of the best show-cases of Fraser’s vocals there is, and also because Dawn French picked it as one of her Desert Island Discs, which I find endearing.
Playlist: "Why Do You Love Me?" / "The Ghost Has No Home" / "Memory Gongs" / "Fluffy Tufts" / "Oomingmak" / "The Thinner the Air" / "Frou-frou Foxes In Midsummer Fires" / "Evangeline" / "Essence" / "Pandora" / "Rilkean Heart" / "Song To The Siren" / "Beatrix"
So You Want to Get Into… Euphoric, Transcendent, Anthemic Cocteau Twins?
For a band with a reputation for being esoteric, the Cocteau Twins have crafted some truly memorable, rousing choruses; for example, “Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops,” with its joyous refrain of ‘dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, paddy, paddy, paddy, bicycle and tulips-eh,’ or something.
This playlist, which spans their career, is made up of the bangers, the hits, the songs you might have heard of even if you’re not familiar with them. These are the songs for cruising round your dead-end town with your ragtag group of misfit friends, dreaming of a better tomorrow; the songs which lend activities as banal as getting the bus to work a melancholy, filmic grandeur.
It also features my all-time favorite Cocteau Twins song, “Carolyn’s Fingers.” In its final chorus, two different Fraser vocal lines are laid on top of each other to create one of most exquisitely yearning sounds I’ve ever heard. The video, too, is excellent: I defy you to watch the intense sincerity on Fraser’s face (she’s decked out in a prim Victorian gown which makes it even more endearing) and not be moved. There’s an intense vulnerability and earnestness to her performance; at times she seems to flinch from the camera, but there’s a suggestion of joy, too. “Carolyn’s Fingers” speaks to me of endurance, hope and rebirth —which is, of course, pure speculation.
Other highlights of the playlist include “Heaven or Las Vegas,” which was their biggest hit. It’s extremely accessible and probably the best place to start if you’re a complete novice to the band. I haven’t discussed the album Treasure much, but it’s a lot of people’s favorite and when you listen to “Lorelei” you can understand why; I once heard someone describe it as “what falling in love sounds like,” which is as good a description as any. There’s a deeply poignant emotional intensity to it—it would also be a great soundtrack for a heartbreak.
“Bluebeard,” written as her relationship with Guthrie was disintegrating, is often held up as an example of Fraser at her most forthright and confessional. Even though it features lines like "Are you the right man for me? Are you safe? Are you my friend? Or are you toxic for me?’, it's surprisingly light and breezy. Finally, “Love’s Easy Tears,” along with its music video, makes me want to go to the flat of someone who owns a massive television and take psychedelics for several days. If you only listen to one playlist, make it this one. The rest can come later.
Playlist: "Sugar Hiccup" / "Fotzepolitic" / "Lorelei" / "Pearly-dewdrops' Drops" / "Aikea-Guinea" / "Kookaburra" / "Love's Easy Tears" / "Heaven Or Las Vegas" / "Bluebeard" / "Summerhead" / Cherry-coloured Funk" / "Iceblink Luck" / "Carolyn's Fingers"
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.