It wasn’t always easy being able to admit my love for Cocteau Twins. Now that I’m in my 40s, middle-aged with an odd-shaped balding head it doesn’t really matter what I admit freely. No one is listening, nor do they care even if they’re in earshot of my incessant Midwest groaning. But being a metal head in Yuckety Yuk, Indiana in the late 80s/early 90s was a balancing act of testosterone ragin’ while keeping your sensitive side neatly tucked away. Maybe you’d keep that soft side of you in some old shoe box under your bed with a pair of your baby shoes, or buried in the backyard with a signed head shot of Soleil Moon Frye and a Popeye t-shirt your mom bought you when you were 8. You couldn’t show weakness in front of other sweaty, over-nourished metalheads or you were likely to be shunned from the group. You’d be sent to the woods to be eaten by wolves. Or worse, Pentecostals.
Point is, a band like Cocteau Twins was about as alien in my adolescent stomping grounds as ,well, aliens. You know, like Hanger 18 aliens. But there was something about Elizabeth Fraser’s voice that dug right into my freakish, greasy teen soul. It was haunting, ghostly, and ethereal like some divine whisper from the universe itself. Of course at 16-years old I would’ve said something more like “What the fuck? This is weird…but good weird like Brazil or potato chips on my bologna sandwich.” I can distinctly remember sitting over at my best friend Jason’s house on a Saturday night re-watching the previous week’s episode of 120 Minutes. We’d dig into Concrete Blonde, My Bloody Valentine, and whatever other 4AD band was the “it” alternative flavor of the week. Then Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas” came on and I sort of felt stunned. Like, what was happening? Is this what it feels like to be touched by an angel? Or groped by a ghost? As Jason started to fast forward the video I say to him “Hey man. Let’s just let this one play, you know for shits and giggles? We could just sit here silently and make fun of it in our minds without words. Or something.” Fortunately, Jason was thinking those same thoughts I was thinking about these Scottish dream poppers. We couldn’t put it into words, but we both knew there was something special going on. Of course we immediately threw on some Suicidal Tendencies or Faith No More and pretended we didn’t just have a moment.
I moved on, 120 Minutes was cancelled, Matt Pinfield got a new job, and I sort of forgot about Cocteau Twins for a couple years until The Crow came out and that soundtrack ruled my brain for most of 1994. One song in-particular got my attention. Medicine’s “Time Baby III”. It was a really cool song, but what really stuck out was the guest vocals of Elizabeth Fraser. It was a voice I hadn’t heard in a long time and it reminded me that I needed to go back to Cocteau Twins and investigate further.
Then about 20 years went by.
Back in 2014 I started up on Cocteau Twins. Having gone “full vinyl”, I knew I had to find some of their albums on the big, black circle. The first album I bought was Heaven Or Las Vegas. It had to be that. That was the album that broke through my big dumb brain in the first place. “Cherry-Coloured Funk” and “Heaven Or Las Vegas” were in my DNA. But the the second one I bought was Blue Bell Knoll. On a streaming binge I happened across the album and was pretty much floored by the whole thing. “Carolyn’s Fingers” felt like a chill going down my spine. Once I heard that I was done.
There are better albums by Cocteau Twins than Blue Bell Knoll. I’m a big fan of Garlands. I love the post-punk vibe and that I can hear where The Cure got their sound from on a song like “Wax and Wane”. Treasure was the first album that saw that truly mesmerizingly beautiful tone they would go on to perfect on Heaven Or Las Vegas. So where does that leave an album like Blue Bell Knoll? Well, to my ears, it’s the last Cocteau Twins album where they still sounded like a small band with very big ideas.
“Blue Bell Knoll” starts out with some of those dark, ominous tones of the early records but quickly adds some synth flourishes and stacks Fraser’s beautiful vocals on top to give the song a much welcomed dreaminess. “Athol-brose” is just absolute brilliance. It’s the moment Dorothy steps from her black and white farmhouse to soak in the technicolor beauty of Oz. It’s dizzying and an overload of the senses. No band sounds like this. Just Cocteau Twins. That’s it. “For Phoebe Still A Baby” feels like some alien lullaby. The bass puts me in mind of mid-80s Cure. I think there’s a thru-line between the two bands. It’s like they both drank from the same Gothic well and somehow worked through whatever demons they were struggling with. This track sounds like contentment with an overcast day.
I have to admit that for years I thought Cocteau Twins were Swedish or French or Finnish. There was something in Fraser’s vocals that made me think what she was singing was not English. I thought it was a very foreign language that was being sung. I was wrong. Cocteau Twins are a Scottish band, but I still think there’s a very alien lean to the words sung by Elizabeth Fraser. She sings beautifully, but it sounds like a language made up by Fraser. The magic in Cocteau Twins, besides the dream-like clouds of flangered bass, guitar, and walls of synth created by Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde, was that voice. It got me every time I heard it. Elizabeth Fraser had a voice like no other. For my money no one has yet to top it.
Every song on Blue Bell Knoll carried some sort of strange magic. “Cico Buff”, “Spooning Good Singing Gum”, “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat”, and “Ella Megalast Burls Forever” all contain some bit of melancholy genius. There’s absolute pop perfection contained on every track here. If it was a fair and just world, Cocteau Twins would’ve been played on pop radio stations worldwide instead of Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne, and NKOTB. Of course the population at large couldn’t take this kind of beauty on their commute to work or bus ride to school. There would’ve been massive existential crisis, love-ins in every county courthouse, and the world as we know it would’ve changed exponentially for the better. We couldn’t have that.
Come to think of it, this actually might be their best album.
I guess it’s better this way. A band like Cocteau Twins will live on forever, allowing future generations to discover their timeless dream pop. Their ghostly songs can fill earbuds in the future and maybe shine a little ethereal light on whatever shit show we may be enduring in 10, 20, or 30 years. And hopefully by then, no matter a metal head in the Midwest or a goat herder in Afghanistan, the Cocteau Twins can be enjoyed openly, freely, and without shame.
I love you Soleil Moon Frye. I always have.