Review Summary: Cocteau Twins' frosty precursor to Heaven Or Las Vegas is an intriguing and undervalued step in their discography.
Most bands can be considered fortunate if they manage to make one masterpiece, let alone two, and all the more so if those two masterpieces are held as religious texts for their genre of choice. Treasure
and Heaven or Las Vegas
are such astronomical albums both on their own terms and in the scheme of dream pop as a whole that they occasionally seem to stand as metonyms for the Cocteau Twins, eclipsing their wider discography. Given the indubitable quality of their other albums, it’s a shame when this happens, but in some ways it’s quite understandable: those two works are stylistic focal points as well as peaks of quality. As such, they really do act as twin spheres of gravity within the Twins’ oeuvre. That’s not to say that everything
Fraser, Guthrie & co. put out can be shoehorned into relativity with one or the other of the albums, but consider how Treasure
built on Head Over Heels
’ brooding post-punk and then meandered off into Victorialand
’s ethereal sparseness. And as for Heaven Or Las Vegas
’ poppier, more panoramic sound? Well, the origin story for that one lies in a broadly overlooked album called Blue Bell Knoll
If Heaven Or Las Vegas
is a gorgeous sunset panorama conveyed by a seamlessly shot and very
generously budgeted tracking shot that passes through the centre of a beautifully overdeveloped city, Blue Bell Knoll
is a morning amble through a frozen meadow in the middle of Highland nowhere. The same songwriting and arrangement principles that underpinned Heaven…
are here, but in a purposefully skeletal form of what they would later become. ‘Crystalline’ is a word so often used to describe Cocteau Twins, albeit accurately, that I was going to forego it altogether, but it applies so strongly to this album even in the face of their sound in general that there’s no two ways around it: crystals are beautiful and evocative of nature in a way that sometimes seems oddly otherworld, but they are also hard, brittle and frigid if you can’t help yourself and starting getting hands-on with them. So it goes for Blue Bell Knoll
. It’s not nearly as sparse as, say, Victorialand
, but in many ways its tone is twice as cold; an impressive feat given that the other album took its name from a colonially named region of the Antarctic. Much of the Twins’ best work has a magical allure to it, and immersive feel that seems to draw you into a whole new world of calming gloom and structural ambiguity; not so here. This is an album to be appreciated and marvelled at just as much as any other superior Cocteau Twins release, but from a position of slight distance rather than up close and personal.
This sounds like a slight backhand, but it largely serves as a source of appeal quite specific to this album; a frigid atmosphere is an atmosphere all the same. “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat” and Cico Buff”, for instance, are as full of the group’s magnetic etherealisms as any track you’ll hear from them. It would also be an exaggeration to say that this album is completely
cold - “For Phoebe Still A Baby” and the stunning closer “Ella Megalast Burls Forever” are as gooey-eyed and sweet hearted as the Cocteau Twins come. However, if we’re talking crystals, it’s no great step to also talk auras, and the aura here is unmistakably frosty. This is particularly evident in the mysterious title track, the impeccable but discernibly crisp single “Carolyn’s Fingers”, the distant wistfulness of “Spooning Good Singing Gum”, and across the album in general. As always, the Cocteau Twins weave their atmosphere seamlessly from start to finish, and so if you can get past Blue Bell Knoll
’s marginally less inviting tone, you’ll find it as worthwhile an experience as any of their essential works.