Excellent retrospective on the excellent “Head Over Heals” from the Cocteau Twins, via the ever-excellent Quietus.
Such has been the long shadow of influence cast by the Cocteau Twins that it seems strange to think that even they had heroes who’d made a profound and indelible effect on them. Even more curious an idea to consider is that their primary role models were the Dadaist and chaotic car-crash that was The Birthday Party, a band hell-bent on leaving a trail of pandemonium, confusion and destruction in their wake as they dragged the battered and bleeding remains of rock & roll with them by its heels. And yet it’s all there in their 1982 debut album, Garlands. The bloodied finger trails of Roland S. Howard’s cheesewire guitars are daubed all over songs such as the title track, ‘The Hollow Men’ and ‘Wax And Wane’ as conventional notions of what a guitar could and should do in the seismic wake of punk are thrown to the wind like so much discarded garbage.
It’s a point worth noting as, just over a year later, the Cocteau Twins – truncated to the duo of sonic architect [see me after class, Ed] Robin Guthrie and singer Elizabeth Fraser following the departure of bassist Will Heggie after a 46-date tour with Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – made such a huge leap forward that it not only showed where they were going but also did much to relegate their debut to the unfair status of a half-remembered long-lost relative. But those influences still loomed large over their second album, Head Over Heels, as the possibilities of sound were explored to create a new vernacular. And it’s within this world of aural exploration that rhythms are subverted to add colour and texture while in Elizabeth Fraser’s soaring and ethereal voice and damn near incomprehensible lyrics that a unique vocal delivery is announced to mesh with the instruments to birth an innovative delivery.
And what a difference a year made. In such a short space of time, Elizabeth Fraser’s singing had developed from a weapon given to frequent warbling to one of the most idiosyncratic voices of her generation. Navigating its way through sense and nonsense, heaven and hell, pleasure and pain and all points in between, Fraser’s voice became just as much an instrument as those played by her cohort. Though her speaking-in-tongues delivery had yet to fully develop and recognisable words appear throughout the songs like the briefest of glimpses of form in a swirling and dense fog, her lyrics are more like punctuating syllables that simultaneously blend and bounce with and against the instrumentation going on around her. As displayed by the fact that no two lyric websites can agree what’s actually being sung, the actual lyrical content doesn’t matter here. What is important is that, in tandem with Guthrie’s wall of sound production, a blank canvass is presented to the listener in order to project his or her own imagery and meaning.