A couple weeks ago, I reviewed Lullabies to Violaine, Volume 1, a collection of all the Cocteau Twins’ EPs and singles on 4AD in the 80s. Now I’d like to cover the albums from the same period. The first few mirror the EPs and singles quite closely, but starting in 1986, they begin to diverge. The albums tend to be more focused in specific themes and sounds, and as such, they are a bit less wildly exciting, but still they represent thoroughly solid listening experiences in their longer forms.
Garlands was the first ever Cocteau Twins release in September 1982. It’s dark, post-punk, and gothic, and it’s the only album with bassist Will Heggie. The combination of heavy chorus bass riffs, pointed and thickly distorted lead guitar lines, heavy drum machine reverb, and lots of stuttered vocals makes for a rather harsh sound. It sounds strained and raw, and it doesn’t really vary very widely. I like the creative use of guitar delay, though, and the album sort of presages their later exploration, but it’s much more limited in scope.
Head Over Heels (released on Halloween 1983) is still dark and gothy, but it’s somewhat more exploratory. Most of the instrumentation and tone is similar to prior recordings, but with the addition of some keyboards and acoustic guitars. It was recorded as a duo after Heggie left, but there is still bass, presumably recorded by Robin Guthrie. The production is slightly richer and more vibrant. It’s right on the line of the original gothy sound and something new. “Sugar Hiccup” is of course excellent, but it sticks out a bit. (It fits on Sunburst and Snowblind a bit better.) “In the Gold Dust Rush” is also notably a step forward, and “Multifoiled” is surprisingly playful.
By the time Treasure was released in November 1984, Cocteau Twins had hit their stride. Treasure picks up about where The Spangle Maker EP left off, and even if it can’t quite match that level of consistency, it’s their first really good album. It’s also their first album with bassist Simon Raymonde. It finally shows them opening up and really coming into their own; it’s full of great guitar and keyboard sounds, and Elizabeth Fraser really started exploring the full power of her voice. Almost every song has something cool and creative going for it. “Ivo” is perhaps the most remarkable of the lot, and it’s such an awesome opening track. It starts all dark and spooky like their previous work, but then suddenly tumbles into something grand, full, and bombastic. That’s followed up with “Lorelei”, another solid song that starts right off with insistent guitar and bells, hearkening the coming of majestic new heights. It feels so lush, and Fraser’s voice sounds full of hushed anticipation. The album gets a bit weirder starting with “Beatrix”, and a few songs like “Cicely” and “Otterley” are just a bit too dark and dull. But right at the end of album closer “Domino”, they pull a nice trick and refresh themselves anew.
After a streak of incredible EPs, the band changed gears for Victorialand, released in April 1986. As Raymonde was busy with This Mortal Coil, it was recorded again as a duo. This time, though, there’s hardly any bass or even drums at all, but there is some saxophone from Richard Thomas of Dif Juz. Otherwise, it’s mostly just acoustic or shimmering electric guitar and vocals. The result is sparse and open but still pretty, which makes for a very chill and relaxing listen. Opener “Lazy Calm” takes some time to get going, but it expands beautifully. “Fluffy Tufts” and “Little Spacey” are quite pleasant, too. Just a few tracks like “Throughout the Dark Months of April and May” and “The Thinner the Air” are more overcast. The album is a bit short and feels a bit slight, especially after how much they crammed into each of the preceding releases. It feels like a distinct break from everything they’d done before, but it wouldn’t be the last time they’d explore these elements.
Right after the stunning Love’s Easy Tears EP came The Moon and the Melodies in November 1986. With Guthrie back in the fold, this album was also a collaboration with ambient composer Harold Budd. (Strangely it was credited to each of the four contributors as individuals.) Richard Thomas turns up again on sax, too. The result is not at all like Love’s Easy Tears; it’s much closer to Victorialand, but with the notable addition of particularly expressive piano. Most of the album is open, broadly ambient, and instrumental. “Memory Gongs” represents the best of that bunch; it’s just a cool atmosphere, like walking on a frozen pond in the woods, with piano and little synth noises dripping down on the icy splendor. The rest of the album (“Sea, Swallow Me”, “Eyes Are Mosaics”, “She Will Destroy You”) is like normal Cocteaus but chiller, lighter, and more shimmery, but still further on the ambient spectrum than usual. The whole concept feels like a risk, and even if it isn’t stellar across the board, it’s still quite good. “Sea, Swallow Me” is great by any standard. Fraser’s vocals are big and dramatic, and the music swells and shines right in step. The album is not as weird or dark or even as mysterious as their prior work, but the expansiveness and grandiosity can still be found here and there. The latter half of the album is maybe a bit too sparse, but “Ooze Out and Away, Onehow” finally turns it up right before the end.
Cocteau Twins finally took some time off at that point. They stopped releasing EPs for the next seven years, and they took a break from touring as well. Their next release was Blue Bell Knoll in September 1988. If this was the condensed best of two years of work, it shows. It’s refined, complex, and exciting, but also bright, beautiful, and almost entirely upbeat. It would seem the band had access to a modest budget, and they made great use of it. It’s not quite as varied and dynamic as Treasure or their best EPs, but it is a return to the forms of those releases. “Blue Bell Knoll” starts the album off on a high note, entrancing the listener with the rolling harpsichord sound. “Carolyn’s Fingers” is one of their all-time best. The heights of Fraser’s voice are wondrous and the music is gorgeous. “For Phoebe Still a Baby” brings the energy down a notch, but it’s still just as pretty. “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” might be their first sequencer-driven song, and it presages the full, soft beauty of Heaven or Las Vegas. I love the weird spacey sounds, too. The album might rely on a few tried and true formulas (acoustic guitar strums and delay-laden electric arpeggios), but there’s nothing wrong with that when the results are this good.
Heaven or Las Vegas, released in September 1990, is the peak of Cocteau Twins. It’s dream pop at it’s finest. It’s full, stunning, and luscious, with a huge sound, excellent production, and an obviously good budget. It’s the best they’d ever do in the album format. The band was starting to fracture, and this was their last album for 4AD, but you can hardly tell. It’s their most accessible, mainstream, and pop-oriented work, yet doesn’t compromise their vision, scope, or grandeur. It’s also their dance-friendliest music. Every song has something of a driving pulse laying the groundwork for the ethereal layers. It’s also notable for lyrics that started to move back into decipherable territory. The influence of a newborn baby is maybe even discernible. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” is a great title, even if I wouldn’t call it funk, but the “cherry-coloured” part seems to fit. “Fifty-Fifty Clown” and “Road, River and Rail” are slightly cloudier and uncertain, but still lovely. “Heaven or Las Vegas” is one of their best, another one of their songs that just keeps pouring down incredible sounds and vocal lines. “Fotzepolitic” and “Wolf in the Breast” manage similar feats without getting repetitive. Closer “Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” starts slow and haunting with the characteristic feedback wails, but then widens into a beautiful chiming chorus. This is the band at the peak of their talents, and unfortunately they’d never quite reach them again.
In their streak of albums for 4AD, Cocteau Twins managed to consistently expand their range, and almost every album was an improvement over the last. It must’ve been magical to see where they’d go next. They ended up in a very different place than where they began, and it’s fascinating to see the progression. It’s also a pleasure to hear how the albums and EPs fit together and show different sides of the band. Heaven of Las Vegas might be rightfully heralded as a masterpiece, but there’s plenty of other good music to be found here as well.
Head Over Heels: C+
The Moon and the Melodies: B
Blue Bell Knoll: A-
Heaven or Las Vegas: A+
Thursday, December 24, 2020
Cocteau Twins - The 4AD 80s albums
Labels: 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, album review, Cocteau Twins
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