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The Album Study: 'Heaven or Las Vegas' (1990)

If you were into indie music in the 1980s, there were arguably three major bands for you to follow: the Smiths, New Order, and Cocteau Twins. But Cocteau Twins were doing something majorly different with their music, often creating distorted sounds that were ahead of their time, using techniques rejected even by their record label.

The band was founded by the guitarist Robin Guthrie in 1979. The Scottish port town of Grangemouth, where Guthrie and the band’s frontwoman Elizabeth Fraser plus bassist Will Heggie first met the underground music scene, consistently informed the band’s art. Heggie was later replaced by English musician Simon Raymonde in 1983.

Eleven years later they would release one of the most defining albums of the 1990s called Heaven or Las Vegas, where their unique and almost ineffable sound truly shone. The experience of listening to this album whole is truly like no other, precisely because the band itself is like no other. From beginning to its conclusion, this album is a truly immersive experience. The songs spill over into one another, engulfing its listeners into glittering instrumentals, building a wall of sound which only Fraser’s ethereal vocals penetrate.

Fraser is famous for her unintelligible vocals; the majority of our music platforms don’t even offer the lyrics option for the songs. I conducted a poll to see how true this was and indeed, 85% voted ‘No’ to being able to understand her lyrics. Of those responses, people ranged from, “I don’t know a person who knows a single Cocteau Twins lyric”, to attempts like, “Something fever’s dream”. This is because of Fraser’s truly unique approach to lyricism; she often utilises English, Gaelic and French and is said to have been carrying numerous lyrics sheets to recording sessions of which we can only decipher a few like “Cherry-Coloured Funk”. Fraser focused on the sonic qualities of words, using her voice as an instrument like Guthrie’s guitar to compliment the music, and this foregrounding of phonetics pushes the listener to helplessly emerge in the overall sound experience of the album.

The closest thing to defining the album that I can provide is a comparison to Agness Martin’s art, large scale paintings which portray micro emotions, “Those spaces in between emotion”, the size of which submerge the viewer into them. Cocteau Twins similarly submerge their listener into the band’s emotions. From the elation of the birth of Guthrie and Fraser’s daughter in “Pitch The Baby”, to melancholic tones due to their marital struggles, Guthrie’s drug addiction, and Raymonde mourning the death of his father which are heard in “Frou Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” and “I Wear Your Ring”.

Heaven or Las Vegas is an album of reflection on life: struggles, love, death and birth, it is an album drenched in profound emotion which plunges listeners into Cocteau’s consciousness.

Photo: Naina Zilbermints

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