Among the many and varied types of music we listened to in the 1990s, none was more “1990s” than a spectrum of dreamy, often unintelligible albums ranging from Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares via the likes of Enya, and a fondly-remembered project called simply One World, One Voice to, well, to Cocteau Twins, nominally a Scottish band, but unlike pretty much any other Scottish band in their seeming determination to sound like their music came from outer space.
I had been vaguely aware of a Scottish band with some ethereal vocals for some time, but I’m not sure at this remove what finally prompted me to properly listen to them – maybe it was another library album.
The last time I remember regularly borrowing albums from a library was when we lived in Tring. Tring library was very similar in size and scope to the one I first started borrowing albums from, and still mostly dealt in vinyl albums – at least, that’s what I think I remember, but maybe I’m conflating the two in my mind. I got through a fair number of early-nineties fads – remember those MTV Unplugged albums – and some things I probably should already have known, and then suddenly I was listening to Cocteau Twins music in all its otherworldly glory.
One of the principal reasons that this album is on this list as opposed to any of the other mainly instrumental sounds is that when this album came out in 1996 it quickly became a firm favourite in the house, and then the following year, became part of our intended childbirth soundtrack.
Now, I’m not kidding myself; I’m barely qualified to talk about childbirth, having been a spectator for both of my children’s births, but there were some aspects I could take part in, including the ante-natal classes, and the curation of a delivery room playlist.
The classes were generally interesting and useful – save for the one which was basically a sales pitch for one particular brand of formula milk (I assume that’s how the whole thing was funded); we sat in a room once a week with a group of other first-time parents who were all as bewildered and anxious as we were, and we were reassured that the whole thing would be simple and straightforward – the point of the classes, in reality, is to ensure that the new parents-to-be are aware of the wide range of what’s normal, both during and after the birth, and in my case at least, to be given permission to think about what calming music I could provide to at least let me feel like I was contributing in some way.
Milk and Kisses had quickly become a favourite – one of the albums which accompanied our move to a slightly bigger house on the fringes of Watford, and a certainty for the labour ward playlist, combining as it did ethereal, calming sounds and a general air of peace and tranquility.
At least, that’s how I remember it – I haven’t listened to it in years.
Of course (and you may be ahead of me here), the well-intentioned plans for a calm, almost mystical birthing experience didn’t really survive contact with the real word, in which we spent the majority of a chilly November day listening, not to Liz Fraser emoting or Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde dazzling us with their layers of sound, but to the surprisingly rapid heartbeat of our imminent arrival. That day is nudging 25 years ago now, but it’s vivid to me; I can even tell you what I was wearing. And I can’t do that about yesterday.
We did listen to Milk and Kisses at some point around lunchtime, I think. But that was still many hours from the actual delivery, and I don’t remember any more music being played; it all seemed a little superfluous to the real life happening in the room.
As I say, I’m not really qualified to talk about anything more than what it looked like, but I think it say something that of the no doubt lengthy playlist I had assembled, this is the only album which stands out and which, on the odd occasion I do hear something from it, reminds me acutely of the sounds and smells of that unforgettable day.
And once we were parents, there seemed to be so much less time for listening to new music that I actually found myself wondering if new music had completely dried up around the end of 1997. It hadn’t, of course, but it’s telling that we’re at number 49 in the list with 25 years of music still to go. All of which prompts me to wonder what this album which is the soundtrack to a very specific and highly charged part of my life sounds like now.
The immediate reaction to Violaine is a mix of “oh, I remember this”, and wondering if that’s a live drummer, since I am almost certain that there wasn’t an actual drummer in the band. And then Liz Fraser’s unmistakable voice cuts in, singing those strange syllables and accompanying herself in a pure soprano, and I’m not listening to the music as such any more, just experiencing it. There’s a false ending with a chance for the bassline to re-establish itself, and the whole thing drifts along exactly as I remember it – easy to hear why this would have been on the playlist.
Serpentskirt opens with delicious cascading guitar, and a vocal which trips along beside it in a language which is almost, but not quite, English. If I was to choose an example from this album of what this band sound like, this would be it – there’s a whole soundscape here, played at a loping pace and with enough modulation and shifting of the melodic ground to make it something more than the background music you could easily write it off as.
On the other hand, Tishbite almost sounds like a regular 1990s pop song. It’s still at that same calm, unhurried pace, but there are actual English lyrics, and the song is structured in a more easily interpreted way, although the lack of printed lyrics leaves the whole thing open to interpretataion, like snatches of an unfamiliar song heard in a dream
And Half-Gifts drifts in with a woozy fairground feel – it reminds me very strongly of Gabriel Yared’s score for Betty Blue (there’s a whole unexplored area of film scores I have known and loved, but there’s no time…). This sounds like a break-up song, and it’s hard not to relate it to the crumbling relationships which meant that this was the final Cocteau Twins album. I can make out the words fairly clearly on this one, and while it’s a bitter kind of song, it’s also in that special Cocteau Twins way, deeply weird – “That’s what grown-ups do / That is mature thinking” sounds more like an argument than a song.
Can I just point out my deep admiration for a band who attach seemingly random titles to their songs, prompting as much reflection as the actual music does? What on earth does Calfskin Smack mean? How on earth does it relate to the impenetrable lyrics which seem to be adjacent to, rather than entirely in, the English language. It’s still a gorgeous song, though, and ends absolutely perfectly, as if they all looked around and said “Yes, that’s all we have to say about that.”
Some albums on this list have tried my patience with songs which outstay their welcome, but I have never felt that about this album; each song is precisely as long as it needs to be – some take longer to make their point than others, is all.
Rilkean Heart (which I have discovered today was written for, or inspired by, Jeff Buckley) actually features the song title in the lyrics, which may make it unique (although I’m now wondering about Pearly Dewdrops’ Drops). It packs a lot into its four minutes, including a breakdown where it all threatens to fall apart, searching for a key to continue in, before righting itself and flowing on.
It is all calm, and similarly paced, this album, but never does it feel samey or plodding (which had been my concern – how was I going to write about 10 songs which all sound the same? I needn’t have worried).
I’m captivated by the voice – of course I am – at the start of Ups; I have looked up some lyrics for this, and can see that someone has valiantly tried to render it as if it was written in English, but it plainly isn’t, and the linguist in me is just entranced by those trills… The voice is at its most free and expressive here, given permission to just explore the outer edges of what’s possible in the melodic framework, and not worry too much about where it’s all going, or what it means.
The sound effects at the beginning of Eperdu take me aback; I hadn’t remembered them at all – we’re standing on a rocky shore, listening to the ocean, and there’s hardly any instrumentation at all, leaving us to focus on the voice, which is soaring above the water, gliding along like a seabird in a strong onshore wing, hovering, swooping and gliding seemingly effortlessly. What does it mean? I have no idea, although I think I hear words like ‘floating’ and ‘dreaming’ in there; maybe I’m projecting my feelings onto it.
I still haven’t worked out the drum thing yet – there’s very definitely a drum kit involved in some of these songs, rather than a drum machine, but more research is needed to see what was going on there.
Meanwhile, Treasure Hiding is slightly slower, and even more enigmatic. At times, the layered vocals seem to be commenting on themselves – or possibly translating, who knows? It’s entirely possible that the title is a commentary on the whole song – there’s something in here, but you’ll have to work at it to find out what exactly the song’s about – the lips, the heart, the soul; who knows? Then it suddenly breaks open; there’s a definitive beat and suddenly, all this way in, a purpose and energy to the song – unlike everything else we’ve heard before, it’s going somewhere. It’s just that only the driver knows what that destination is, the rest of us are blindfolded and along for the ride.
The whole thing is rounded off by Seekers Who Are Lovers, which announces itself with a firm drumbeat, then gradually puts on all the Cocteau Twins layers – at first the vocal seems clear and even meaningful, but gradually is enveloped by the guitar sounds, and then the second level of voice – Liz Fraser just emoting in a higher register, and taking your attention away from what you thought the song was about. In the end, like all the best Cocteau Twins music, it seems to exist to perplex, beguile and leave the listener not entirely sure what they just heard, but eager to go back and see what they might have missed while trying to work out which planet this came from.
I though that I would be dropping back in time, listening to this, but what I found was that Milk and Kisses, and probably most of the band’s output, exists outside time; I can imagine it being discovered by today’s generation and still heralded as radical and otherworldly; maybe I should ask my 25-year-old what he thinks…
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Certainly. Both the mainly acoustic Victorialand and the full band experience of Heaven or Las Vegas are worth your exploration, especially if you were enraptured by this album. I will say that I find the production on the earlier albums better than the slightly muddy sound on Milk and Kisses.
Compilations to consider?
Stars and Topsoil looks to be a comprehensive collection covering the 1980s; I’m not aware of anything equivalent for the 1990s material, though.
Nope. Not really a live band, your Cocteaus.
Anything else? If you’ve never heard the This Mortal Coil version of Song to the Siren, it’s basically a Cocteau Twins track (it’s all a bit complicated to explain), and is breathtaking in its simplicity and the power of that unmistakable voice. Speaking of which, one of the reasons I enjoy Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album (not on this list, but might have been) is that the best tracks – including the peerless Teardrop – feature Liz Fraser. Basically, seek out anything which she’s ever sung on, you won’t go wrong.