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."
Reconciling the music of the Cocteau Twins with the rest of your collection has, for most fans, been a struggle. Despite being deeply loved by dreamy girls and desperate goths, the Twins created a sound that could only be called "ineffable." Although some would hear ethereal melancholy, others would hear explosive grandiosity; things like "dangerously gorgeous," "the sound of heaven" and "dewy loveliness" were continually written about the group's records.
All of that is a bunch of arty-farty, pre-Raphaelite bullshit, as it were. The Cocteau Twins started as a trio of cranky, rough-hewn Scottish punk kids and ended as a trio of bitchy, post-recovery, post-divorce basket cases. "Dewy loveliness" was never on the menu, no matter the group's curious adoption by lovers of Enya; regardless of the protestations of their many adoring fans, the Cocteau Twins were certainly no closer to knowing what heaven was like than anyone else.
Guitarist Robin Guthrie the primary architect of the Twins' sound was a raging drunk for many years, who also enjoyed ingesting copious amounts of cocaine. Elizabeth Fraser the owner of that peculiar voice was, as Guthrie's longtime romantic partner, a textbook enabler, buried under her own insecurities. That they could manage to be musical collaborators as long as they were is startling, considering that the two (and anyone else in the band's sphere of existence) were constantly fighting. That they made a baby together is insane. That they ended their romantic relationship (Guthrie and his new wife havecustody of the baby), yet maintained their roles in Cocteau Twins for a time is the culmination of a dissonance thatborders on sickness.
And that's what the Cocteau Twins have always represented more than anything else: dissonance. From the bristling sheets of guitar squall and quasi-dubby basslines on "Grail Overfloweth" (Garlands, 1982) and the panicked vocals and angular riffage of "Persephone" (Treasure, 1984) to the cascading opulence of "Circling Girl" (a 1996 B-side) or the restrained piano version of "Rilkean Heart" (from the 1995 Twinlights EP), the group's music was unique to the point of distraction.
Originally built around a rhythm section sporting post-punk basslines and a poorly programmed drum machine, Cocteau Twins were anything but "pretty" when they began making music. Guthrie's guitar sound was tentative and intentionally obscure, the result of ridiculous amounts of reverb and volume-achieved distortion masking his rudimentary skills. The same could be said of Fraser's voice: The polylinguistic glossolalia she employed hid her admitted lack of confidence and an unwillingness to commit to lyrics that made sense to anyone but herself. This hard-edged impressionism soon blossomed into a musical language that was all its own; the Head Over Heels (1983) and Treasure albums were bits of baroque emptiness, with shiny edges and mushy insides ripe for multiple interpretations. While most listeners were willing to ascribe that intangibility to Fraser's vocals, it was actually Guthrie's odd ear for constructions and arrangements that made these albums so fascinating. Piling layers upon layers of incredibly distorted guitars, Guthrie was crafting albums that were a peculiar blend of avant-garde noise and ambient melody. Nobody ever hears that though, because they're just trying to figure out what the hell "Glass Candle Grenades" is about.
These two albums defined the perception of the Cocteau Twins' music locking in that core audience of goths and geeks for no particular reason for most of the group's existence. Which is unfortunate, for although they're incredible albums, the work that followed was both fascinating and disparate. Over time, the edges would get softer, and the melodies more pronounced, but the songs were built on increasingly inchoate elements: pounding digital basslines wrapped in razor-gauze guitar parts and a persistent spaciousness that was clearly defined on the atmospheric Victorialand (1986) but used to the greatest effect on the poppy bombast of Heaven or Las Vegas (1990).
Toward the end of the group's existence, Guthrie would lean back on structures he codified a decade previously. But even while making somewhat "standard"-sounding albums like Milk and Kisses (1996), he was still trying to push the Cocteaus' music in different directions by releasing EPs like the acoustic Twinlights and the ambient Otherness. (No, you can't have a discussion about post-rock or modern ambient music without talking about the Cocteau Twins.) Though a lot of spectators found those EPs to be radical departures from the group's "sound" they were just more in a long line of sonic experimentations that Guthrie had put the Cocteaus through. Within a period of 18 months (early 1985 through late 1986), the group dabbled with full-bodied aggression (Aikea-Guinea, with the most appropriately titled song in the Twins' canon, "Rococo"), gloopy melodrama (the Echoes in a Shallow Bay/Tiny Dynamine double EP), womblike soundscapes (Victorialand) and Spector-esque pop (Love's Easy Tears). And nearly every note of it was built on oceans of guitar feedback.
To cast off such a discography as monochromatic or unadventurous simply because of the fans it attracted or the verbal gymnastics that critics utilized to praise it is unfair and inaccurate. With The Cure (another misappreciated band) becoming the Rolling Stones of the post-punk dream-pop brigade, it's heartening to look back at the discography that the Cocteau Twins left behind and realize that there was a Beatles or at least a Kinks lurking unidentified in their midst. Listen to the records again, forgetting that dorky boyfriend or black-clad girlfriend that turned you on to them in the first place, and you'll understand.
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