The Cocteau Twins are one of the most enigmatic acts in music. For a start, the uninitiated would never guess that they were from a small town in Scotland. That being said, their sui generis style is one that makes them hard to pin down in any sense, let alone geographically, but the dreaminess of the French Riviera would sooner spring to mind than Scotland.
In the technological explosion of music in the 1980s, when synths and samples became ubiquitous, Cocteau Twins crafted out their own niche. They took the gloss of what others were offering and made it all-together dreamier, quickly firing them towards popularity and acclaim from unlikely beginnings.
The band themselves, originally consisting of Robin Guthrie, Will Heggie and Elizabeth Fraser, often endured a tempestuous relationship, signified by Heggie being replaced by Simon Raymonde in 1983. However, as Fraser attests, creativity often “flowed from the chemistry between [them]”.
Despite achieving both acclaim and garnering a solid following of enamoured fans, fame would evade the band, and, in a blunt sense, this seemed befitting. In short, they were far too unpackageable for the mainstream to cajole into something knowable. This scrutiny and the fickle finagling that followed all of their creative outputs like a bad smell added pressures that eventually tolled with divorces, drug addictions and nervous breakdowns.
Nowadays, their legacy is one of true musical innovators, to such an extent that they are championed as pillars of entire musical genres. Below, we’re taking a look at the best places to start on your journey into the weird world of the Cocteau Twins by looking at six songs that come as close to defining the indefinable as it is possible to get.
The six definitive Cocteau Twins songs:
‘Wax and Wane’
Cocteau Twins debut album was an unflinching statement of non-conformity. They emerged onto the scene and were quickly dubbed ‘The Voice of God’, which is obviously insanely bombastic, but it comes from a place of the bewildered press trying to size up the otherworldly profundity of this brand-new voice.
The track ‘Wax and Wane’ betrays some of the inspirations behind their music before they were drowned out completely in a wave of sheer originality. There is an almost Peter Hook style bass that drives the song along in a whirlwind of slightly frightening sound, the sort that could haunt an empty house.
At this stage, I feel I have made it very clear that Cocteau Twins were a band that defied platitudes, but if there is one easy cliché that you could apply, it would be that they were ahead of their time.
There are so many tracks like ‘Lorelei’ in music that has followed in their wake, notably in the renaissance of dream-pop that is still bubbling to the surface today, almost 40 years later. The avowal of such songs is to create atmospheres rather than catchy choruses, and spaces of reverie as opposed to an instant knees-up.
For many fans, ‘Pearly-Drewdrops’ Drops’ is the most Cocteau-Esque song that the Cocteau Twins ever crafted. Coupling poignancy with nonsense it embodies the almost-Duchampian artistic vision behind the band, as it wails away on a sonic wisp of pillow-propped contentment.
The production and studio wizardry on display in this song is still a thing to behold to this day. It all helps to capture the zeitgeist of coming-of-age that many youthful movies would make use of in the years following its release.
‘Sea, Swallow Me’
The Cocteau Twins are an alien entity within the music world. Although their ambient sound is not unique on paper, in reality, they have always retained an otherworldliness that the growth of the genre has never impeached.
‘Sea, Swallow Me’ is a mystical piece of dalliance that seems to be seized from the edges of the sacrosanct. Lord knows, what is happening musically or what is being said but surely must be something beautiful. It is a song so ethereal that you could weave its sonogram onto silk.
With lyrics that sound like they’re being played in reverse, the Cocteau Twins once again managed to achieve the singular feat of capturing something out of nothing in particular. There is a transcript to the lyrics, but they bring you no closer to understanding the obfuscated song that paradoxically somehow seems so full of meaning.
The band snatch something ethereal and coax it down onto vinyl, but it remains the original remains as elusive as ever. In the process, the song is a kaleidoscopic whirl of yearning and transcendence, hard to understand, but ultimately so easy to listen to and get lost in.
If any band could name a song simply ‘Essence’ and get away with it, then Cocteau Twins are the rightful champions. After a truly prolific artistic splurge, the toll of scrutiny was mounting, thus by the time of Four Calendar Café, their sonic output was suitably sedated. The dreaminess was still in full swing, but now it was drenched in the late 1950s reverb of some sort of sanctuary.
Prince once remarked: “You can’t understand the words of Cocteau Twins songs, but their harmonies put you in a dreamlike state.” With ‘Essence’ that dream sounds like the product of a thousand year’s worth of sleep, and dredges depths beyond comprehension that prompted Iain Banks to write: “The music machine played away – far away – and when I started to understand the lyrics of a Cocteau Twins song, I knew I was wrecked.”