Children of the Cocteau Twins

Revival of a Cultish, Cool Sound

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Children of the Cocteau Twins

It’s been 35 years since composer Angelo Badalamenti unleashed his dreampop–influenced Twin Peaks film score on the world. But few know that the 4AD collective This Mortal Coil, featuring members of the Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance, served as the inspiration for his “Mysteries of Love,” as well as “Floating into the Night,” sung by filmmaker David Lynch’s dream-pop protégé Julee Cruise. Lynch had wanted to include the Cocteau’s haunting version of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” on the soundtrack, but producer Dino DeLaurentis refused to shell out the $50,000 licensing fee. So Badalamenti was left to create something equally as moody.

That influential soundtrack helped to spur interest in dreampop, and it coincided with the release of Heaven or Las Vegas (4AD/Relativity), the Cocteau Twins’ sixth and final studio album on the landmark alternative label. It also was the band’s most commercially successful release—Heaven or Las Vegas is included in the 2005 book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

The Cocteau Twins—vocalist Elizabeth Frazer, guitarist and drum machine programmer Robin Guthrie, and multi-instrumentalist Simon Raymonde (who replaced fellow co-founder and bassist Will Heggie in 1983)—formed in Grangemouth, Scotland in 1979. The band’s ethereal sound, built around Frazer’s Goth-tinged operatic vocals (which often included random foreign words) and Raymonde’s shimmering guitar tones, stood out in the pop-and-punk heavy 80s—Siouxsie and the Banshees were an early influence. The band became known for beautiful songs that seem to drift on the airwaves and that feature such fey titles as “Pearly Dewdrops Drop,” “Lazy Calm” and “Cherry-Coloured Funk.” The Cocteaus split in 1997, but have reunited on occasion and continue to record solo. You can hear Frazer on The Lord of the Rings Trilogy soundtracks, with trip-hop purveyors Massive Attack and nuevo-folk artist Sam Lee’s 2020 album The Moon Shines Bright. Guthrie composes film scores and is a frequent collaborator with synth-wiz Harold Budd. Raymonde has recorded dozens of artists on his own Bella Union label.

In 2018, 4AD remastered and reissued the Cocteau Twins catalog on vinyl. The releases, thanks to spacious reverberant atmospherics and precise production, are ripe for audiophiles. A good starting point is the 1985 compilation The Pink Opaque. The band’s oeuvre helped pave the way for much of the alt-pop music of the past four decades, including dreampop, shoegaze, emo, and trip-hop—no Cocteau Twins, no Beach House. In 2002, a pair of tribute albums—Dark Treasures (Cleopatra) and Half-Gifts (Dewdrops)—paid homage to the Cocteaus. Those featured DIIV, Godbox, Trance to the Sun, and Ringo Deathstar, among others.

Here are five more artists that have fallen under the spell of the Cocteau Twins:

Massive Attack cranks out richly textured trip-hop that features guest spots by the likes of Mazzy Starr’s Hope Sandoval and the experimental pop of TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe. Cocteau vocalist Elizabeth Frazer—who recorded “Teardrop” on the band’s 1998 album Mezzanine—hit the road with Massive Attack in 2019, despite her aversion to the stage.

Sufjan Stevens recorded the Twin Peaks ballad “Mysteries of Love” for 2017’s Call Me by Your Name soundtrack. The dreamy Cocteau inflections are in keeping with his often wistful musings (see 2017’s underrated Planetarium).

My Bloody Valentine was contemporaneous with latter-day Cocteaus and showed how seamlessly shoegazing bands emerged from their shadow. Such MBV albums as 1991’s Loveless had a real edge, thanks to a wash of buzzsaw guitars, but the detached hipster vibe of vocalist/guitarists Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields are sympatico with the Cocteau Twins.

Tamaryn has shifted toward commercial EDM sound of late, but the New Zealand singer and songwriter has amassed several albums steeped in the Cocteau Twins ethereal sound. Check out the title track to 2015’s Cranekiss (Kemado). 

Slowdive released the shoe- gazing masterpiece Souvlaki in 1998. The album features a pair of Cocteau-esque tracks produced by Brian Eno, who also contributed synthesizer, and the songs are stunning. In 2017, the band reunited for an eponymous album 22 years in the making. Hey, they don’t call themselves Slowdive for nothing.