A reviewer once wrote that Elisabeth Fraser sang “with the voice of God,” and I’m not sure you need to know much more about the Cocteau Twins than that.
But I’ll tell you anyway: The Scottish band was formed in 1979 by Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie, although they didn’t really take off until they added Fraser in 1981, then removed Heggie in 1983– recording Head Over Heels as a duo, moving Fraser’s voice front and center and transitioning from their “dark post-punk” aesthetic into more ethereal dream pop– before replacing Heggie on bass with Simon Raymonde (and settling on that as the band’s primary lineup) before recording Treasure, released November 1, 1984.
I usually put a line from the album in the article title, but Fraser’s singing for the Scottish band famously rarely used actual words, often using unintelligible words or nonsense language, substituting the impression of the vocal sounds for actual lyrics. Not something most bands could pull off, but Fraser’s sweeping, operatic soprano made it work.
That voice found its instrument in the Cocteau Twins’ dreamy, ethereal proto-shoegaze pop, reverb and sheen elevating Fraser’s voice to its maximal glory, sometimes sweet and light, others like ringing down in a proclamation from the great above, accompanied by light melodies, chiming instruments, and strong drumbeats.
The first two tracks on Treasure serve as great examples of both– opener “Ivo” as the latter; “Lorelei” as the former. On “Ivo,” the chimes, drumbeat, and reverb, and Fraser’s voice, make the barely intelligible lyrics (apparently there are actual words; good luck making them out on your own) sound like messages from the divine, before the production gets heavy and noisier for… well, where the solo would be in a typical rock album. “Lorelei” is more gentle, Fraser’s voice breathier, a much more sweetness-and-light track than “Ivo” and its awe-inspiring (in the classic sense) impact of Fraser’s vocals.
Those are my two favorite tracks, but the rest of the album is good, too; each song is surprisingly unique given the overall unified aesthetic of the album. “Beatrix” opens with a different texture than the others (a harpsichord, maybe, behind all that production?) that creates a different, edgier effect than most of the tracks (of course, again, this being a prototypical example of dream pop, “edgy” only means so much). “Persephone” lets Fraser show off her warble– which we really don’t get on this album outside of this track– over a more forward drumbeat, another example of the band using the power of her voice to create impressions in the listener more than express anything through words. “Pandora” starts with a more gentle riff, probably the closest this album gets to acoustic beachside strumming, before launching into another Fraser-driven soundscape, her voice again providing the melody (and harmony) over some relatively spare drumbeats.
“Amelia” kicks off the second half of the album a little differently, with a slower tempo and Fraser’s voice a little more buried in the mix than usual. The second half of the album is generally more subdued, with “Aloysius” continuing in a similar vein, with less drumming and Fraser’s voice similarly deeper in the mix. “Cicely” picks up the drumming again, although not as thunderous, and with the soundscape and texture almost overwhelming Fraser’s voice at certain points (what I think is the chorus, although it’s hard to be sure), and an occasionally atonal organ riff, an unusual choice on this album. And speaking of unusual, on “Otterly” Fraser barely sings, and when she does it’s barely words (even by comparison), more just held notes over a slow, almost orchestral soundscape. “Donimo” closes with something a little closer to the opening tracks, with even the “quiet verse / loud chorus” (well, relatively speaking) format that the Pixies would later turn into some of the most seminal indie rock of the era and that Nirvana launched into the mainstream– although, befitting an album like this, it’s still very gentle, relatively speaking (certainly in comparison to the two bands I mentioned).
I find it difficult to write about an album that’s so much more a sensory experience than anything else– it’s not like I can offer analysis of the lyrics or the story they’re telling. This is an album for a particular mood, to evoke a particular atmosphere, and it’s fantastic at that– “dream pop” has never been a more suitable genre description for an album. I can’t describe Treasure better than the experience of listening to it.
The Cocteau Twins’ most commercially successful album was 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, but Treasure is still my favorite. I also recommend The Moon and the Melodies, a collaboration with Harold Budd, who will be featured in another YOTM article if I can actually get it finished. In the meantime: