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Angelic Conversation: Cocteau Twins' Head Over Heels At 40
Darran Anderson , October 24th, 2023 09:05

Darran Anderson slashes away at many of the myths surrounding Cocteau Twins while revisiting their glorious second album

The idea of telecommunications existed long before the telegraph and the telephone, or at least the desire was there. Before the development of wire, radio and optical communication, attempts at immediate long-distance connection were supernatural rather than mechanical, though science and bunkum had yet to be strictly differentiated (Isaac Newton, for instance, was an alchemist as well as a physicist and mathematician). The Tudor magus, necromancer and proto-scientist John Dee embodied this sense of visionary credulity. He was a figure canny enough to suggest the infernal idea of the British Empire to Queen Elizabeth, while also being partial to virtually every esoteric swindler that came his way. One of which went by the name of Edward Talbot.

Dee had been struggling for some time to find a transmission in his scrying mirrors, which were to be found at the crystal ball end of the telecommunications scale. Talbot volunteered his services, claiming he had the gift, and soon became Dee’s trusted communications operator. They would reach out across vast distances and where further than heaven? By speaking to angels, Dee hoped he could learn the secrets of the universe, hacking into God’s operating system, but also, as a lucrative sideline, spy on Elizabeth’s enemies and plot the imperial conquests of undiscovered lands. Unfortunately for Dee, some of the secrets of the universe were being harboured by Talbot. His name was actually Edward Kelley. His talents lay not in divination but forgery. He always wore a hat to cover up the fact that his ears had been cut off, as punishment for a previous act of fraud.

The celestial conversations that supposedly followed, dictated by Kelley to an enraptured Dee, are collected in the book A True & Faithful Relation Of What Passed For Many Yeers [sic] Between Dr. John Dee... And Some Spirits. There are eerie moments recounted, showing that Kelley had a flair for melodrama – encountering Uriel as “a great wheel of fire… full of mens’ eyes” and the child-spirit Madini who whispers, “I dare not tell you where I dwell, I shall be beaten” – yet much of it is typical esoterica, promising the infinite and delivering very little.

One example is Enochian, which according to the angels, was the long-lost language Adam spoke in the Garden of Eden. The full meaning of Enochian was not revealed and conveniently became part of Kelley’s shyster trick of delayed gratification. Though such strategies found temporary favour in the courts of European royalty, time and fortune would run out for both men. Kelley would die in prison and Dee in relative penury.

Invented languages can have many purposes. In Kelley’s case, it was an intriguing means of deception and a way of establishing power (exclusive access to knowledge and obscurantism continues to be an effective tool for those in authority). In other cases, it can have utilitarian or utopian intentions (Esperanto or Volapük for example), attempting to bring people together more efficiently, and ultimately seeking to overcome the linguistic divides we have had between us since the mythic fall of the Tower of Babel. One malevolent, the other benevolent.

There is another form, however. One that is more about immersion in language and its creative capacities, as part of a wider exploration of what it means to be a sentient creature. These can have mystical pseudoscientific origins (the lingua ignota of Saint Hildegard for instance) and they may be designed to evade and protect as much as connect (from Polari to Nüshu), but they can raise interesting questions about the role of language, its tools, limitations and the profound influence it exerts on us (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis contends that it shapes far more of our worldview than we might be aware). Invented languages remind us that human beings are interpretive beings, constantly converting our thoughts and experiences of the world into other forms and deciphering those of others. We are born translators.

It’s easy to be romantic about a place you only pass through. Living there is another story. On journeys across the central belt of Scotland, Grangemouth was always seemed a place of intense mystery. Mist on the mountains or the Firth of Forth in the distance. Flare stacks of the oil refinery burning at dusk. Blade Runner with less neon and more dreich. Part of the mystery came by association. This was the birthplace of Cocteau Twins. Though Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie were keen to leave their hometown as soon as possible (“Grangemouth is not exactly a hive of social activity” they told Sounds in 1982), they carried some of its atmosphere with them, and left some of their own to distil there in the years since. Something intensely otherworldly and yet deeply familiar, Lynchian almost (the director had wanted to use Fraser and Guthrie’s cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song Of The Siren’ to soundtrack Blue Velvet). I felt this the first time I ever heard Cocteau Twins. The song ‘The Tinderbox (Of A Heart)’ from their album Head Over Heels. It was like a visitation in the night sky from a childhood window, ominous and overwhelming yet recognisable, stirring up the silt in submarine depths of memory. Mist music that made everyday surroundings appear peculiar. They sounded simultaneously very very new and very very old.

Emerging from post punk, Cocteau Twins were placed, unwillingly it would seem, into gothic then shoegaze, dream pop, ethereal wave or whatever category dreamt up by cultural taxidermists. There was no real need for such confections. While there were trace elements present (Siouxsie And The Banshees, Joy Division, The Cure etc), Cocteau Twins were themselves, their own category, their own cosmos. Part of this was due to Nigel Grierson and Vaughan Oliver’s 4AD covers, which were tantalising and suggestive. You could almost decrypt the images on the sleeves, but they always remained just out of reach. Mostly it was down to the environments of their sound. The aerial acrobatics of Fraser’s voice. The architecture of sound that came from Guthrie’s effects-treated guitars; not just the often-cited often-derided ‘cathedrals of sound’ but all manner of sunken ballrooms, tunnels, factories, attics, foundries, observatories, caverns. If any category was required, Cocteau Twins could have been placed within symbolism, a hallucinatory death-rattle of romanticism in the industrial age, when all that had been discarded returned in dreams and decadence, orgiastic excess, disembodied spectral heads and ornate altars, lonely demons and alluring succubi, jewels and masks and apparitions, all the minutiae of things that the steam engine and the printing press had yet to fully exorcise.

Like symbolism, Cocteau Twins’ music was a realm where words, beyond the expressive titles, could not fully follow the imagery but merely act as a gateway. Critics would reach for descriptions, not without accuracy, like ethereal, celestial, numinous, arcane, hypnogogic, and the band would recoil. Their reticence was not unwise, given the press could be merciless to the pretentious. Such terms also diminished the craft, force and technological ingenuity of their work, as if they were somehow frivolous sprites floating around in the ether, as if it were all a theatrical charade. Their attitude was born from working-class humility, faced with bleak prospects if the band didn’t work, and justified pride that they’d created staggering sonic worlds even though, at this stage, it was just the two of them. They did not have the luxury of illusions. The pair had a choice of giving up their home or touring Head Over Heels. They chose the latter.

Language can follow in the path of music, in the same way you can walk many miles towards a setting sun yet both remain ultimately unreachable. This is especially true of writing about the songs on an album like Head Over Heels. The compulsion to indulge in wine speak, to rococo levels, is tremendous and would betray the intimacy, which is there as much as the epic, of the recordings. At best, descriptions are poor thumbnail sketches of feelings - the woozy stratospheric waltz of ‘Five Ten Fiftyfold’, the propulsive ‘In Our Angelhood’, the dissonant ‘Glass Candle Grenades’, the crystalline sway of ‘Sugar Hiccup’. The opening track ‘When Mama Was Moth’ dispenses with the view of them being fanciful or twee with its shimmering horror movie murk. ‘The Tinderbox (Of A Heart)’ is more unearthly still, the centrepiece of the album, recalling in its title Hans Christian Andersen’s story but played in a way that is far more Grimm-dark. Songs change from dervish whirlpools to soaring heights.

Shades of contemporaries are evident at times (The Jesus And Mary Chain, Kate Bush, The Birthday Party) but less expected influences are detectable too, however indirectly or unconsciously (Link Wray and westerns on ‘In The Gold Dust Rush’, Bulgarian folk singing and Sufi devotional music throughout the album). It is music so full that the changing of the sides of the record feels like an actual interlude. A time to breathe and compose before re-immersion. With Head Over Heels, Cocteau Twins had ascended, or submerged, to somewhere popular music hadn’t yet been.

No good deed goes unpunished. While there was always a contingent of enthralled supporters in the music press, there was also an entirely disproportionate degree of hostility towards Cocteau Twins. They were accused of being too sincere and not sincere enough. They were portrayed as being Banshees copyists, purveyors of artifice, “fake majesty” and most erroneous of all, given how seductive the music sounds, sexless. There was a degree of misogyny at work at times, and a hint of bigotry towards Scottish interlopers who hadn’t requested permission to exist from the London scene. Mostly, though, it came down to language.

Due to modesty/ shyness/ tetchiness/ integrity, Cocteau Twins were reluctant to explain their work. They didn’t know where it came from but knew the overlooked and undervalued vitality of saying, ‘We don’t know.’ They didn’t offer up particularly glamorous or debauched stories, though they existed, and attention was instead paid to their accents, their weight and the state of their relationship. They weren’t self-publicists in an industry that expected it. They were introverts in a world built for extroverts. They wouldn’t, in other words, play the game. It was a game designed, not by musicians, but by those who wrote about music, and rigged to give critics the last word. Journalists may have seen themselves as ‘hip young gunslingers’ as the NME advert went but a misplaced sense of superiority and puritan righteousness (one of the more lamentable products of punk) had meant they were often instead cultural gatekeepers, jurors, inquisitors. In such a climate, Cocteau Twins sensitivity was interpreted as an insult and was responded to in kind. It is also the reason why Elizabeth Fraser’s enigmatic lyrics and their incomprehensibility received such attention and enmity.

In English, the name for a misheard lyric is mondegreen. In Dutch, it’s the much more Cocteau Twins-sounding, Mama appelsap (‘Mommy apple juice’). It’s not strictly true that Elizabeth Fraser sang in an invented language. Not initially at least. There are snippets of lyrics written on the sleeve of Head Over Heels and others that are discernible upon listening “sunburst… snowblind”. Pieced together like fragments of Sappho. It is a lexicon stretching from worker bees to open wounds, fool’s gold to glass sandstorms. The way she sings is unpredictable, idiosyncratic and intentionally obscure. They are not yet an invented language so much as intentional mondegreens. She did so through embarrassment at the silliness or the intimate quality of the lyrics. Critically, the dots could have been joined between scat-singing jazz artists, the ancient phenomena of glossolalia and the tradition of ‘nonsense’ poetry from Lewis Carroll to Dada. For a critical industry then steeped in competitive Gonzo bullshittery and which had cut its teeth excavating Bob Dylan’s trashcans for clues however, the band’s evasiveness and their choice of opacity over the confessional was an affront. The critics’ battlefield was linguistic, and Fraser was flying over it.

What they failed or refused to realise was that this secrecy was key to Cocteau Twins’ success. It was their gift to their audience. While it was satisfying to uncover a line, and some were shards of poetry (“when mama was moth / I took bulb form / body electric / writhe in vain”), there was an egalitarianism to their choice to be hermetic, or at least partially concealed, lyrically. The puzzles of their work were never-ending (they are still being poured over by sleuths in YouTube comments sections) and could be different for every single listener. She would go further, later, with what appeared to be a constructed language (inspiring Sigur Ros’ hopelandic/Volenska and others). Fraser recognised that art once it leaves the creator is no longer theirs. These songs were now the audience’s to interpret. The songs were alive and loose, shapeshifting, having escaped the cage of meaning. This was taboo in a land where so much is judged by how one speaks due to its stifling class system. By contrast, Cocteau Twins were, and continue to be, creators of music from after and beyond all of that.

It is not easy to embrace uncertainty and its possibilities. We wish to be told we are right, which is another way of being told we are safe. "Then came human beings", Camus wrote in The Fall, "they wanted to cling but there was nothing to cling to." This is why faith and dogma are such tempting and dangerous illusions. With a definitive answer, the subject is exhausted, the room is locked, the audience silenced. You don’t have to worry any more or to think. Culture, however, is an endless stream of questions. It is not consensus or ideology and it does not belong to those who police such things. It is not the definitive singular answer, or its imposition, which is not art but its autopsy. The real strength of esoteric art is not secret knowledge and those who become the priestly guardians of it. You would genuinely learn more from studying the speech of babies than you would Tudor alchemists or manufactured angels. The real strengths are its openness. Language never really fails us, we fail it. When it seems to reach its limits, however, we can change it, sculpt it, melt it down and reconstruct, if we are bold enough. Think of the many words Shakespeare invented. Or Jane Austen, who appears to be the first person to use the word ‘outsider’, in a letter to her sister. Or Joyce. Or Whitman. Or Gerard Manley Hopkins. And think of the songs of Cocteau Twins, who invited their listeners to exchange secrets, to translate for themselves, a process that makes this forty-year-old collection of puzzles and gifts impossibly new.