As I’ve detailed previously, hearing the Cocteau Twins for the first time was something of an epiphany. Here was a band that was able to take swathes of guitar and sculpt them into dazzling compositions equally delicate and titanic. And then there was the voice. The Cocteaus’ vocalist Elizabeth Fraser was once described as “the voice of God,” but I doubt that deity ever sounded so good barking out commandments and whatnot. Fraser spun made-up words, syllabic hiccups, and even some vocabulary found in the dictionary into songs complex and affecting despite their obtuseness. The combination of such otherworldly intonations, guitarist Robin Guthrie’s six-string oscillations, and the mechanized beats they utilized throughout their career resulted in a near perfect swirl of icy cadence, emotional resonance, and ethereal atmosphere.
Following on its reissues of the band’s biggest commercial successes, 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll and 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, 4AD has rereleased two more volumes from the Cocteau Twins discography on vinyl and digitally. The compendium The Pink Opaque and the twin EPs Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay, combined here as one volume, all date from 1985, a year of transition for the band. They had inked a new international distribution deal, and The Pink Opaque, a collection of 10 of the band’s bests from the years previous, including “Millimillenary,” a song that originally appeared only on an NME compilation, was released as an introduction to the band for new American fans (such as those in my hometown of Columbus, as witnessed here). The EPs, released the same month as The Pink Opaque, were, as bassist Simon Raymonde later explained, the results of studio experimentation and sort of cleared the air for what was to come next, which would be the acoustic Victorialand, a collaboration with Harold Budd (The Moon and the Melodies), and the second This Mortal Coil album, Filigree & Shadow. In a way, 1985 found the band at a crucial moment, coming off the brilliant Treasure and able to go anywhere it so chose.
In my opinion, there may not be another compilation album as amazing as The Pink Opaque, which is now finally back in print after being out of circulation since 1999, when it was pressed to CD. Like its dimly lit abstraction of a cover, the album is a world unto itself, with each of its 10 pieces coming together in unique ways to construct it. The slow build of “The Spangle Maker” is the perfect entry, its introductory bass plod eventually blooming into a fireworks display of vocal sparks and guitar explosions. While remixed especially for the comp, “Wax and Wane,” is the oldest track on the album, but it exhibits all the traits of the band’s later work, with Fraser’s trilled vocals contrasting sharply with the cracking drum machine snare. By the time Fraser implores us to come “Hitherto” nearly midway through the record, it’s impossible to not already have been taken in by her siren song. On “Aikea-Guinea,” that song is even more beguiling, with Fraser’s voice spiraling to new heights amid a whirl of tubular bells, crystalline guitar, and a churning rhythm. “Lorelei” begins on that same precipice and aims higher, Fraser’s vocals at once insular and angelic as they soar above Guthrie’s controlled tsunami and stuttered drumbeats. The record’s most vitriolic track, “Musette and Drums” is a fitting way to end, especially with Guthrie’s guitar eventually flying off the rails and into the aether.
While perhaps not as indispensable as the songs found on The Pink Opaque, in comparison to the rest of the Cocteau’s discography—and, of course, the whole of popular music—the material on Tiny Dynamine and Echoes in a Shallow Bay is utterly unique. “Pink Orange Red” reveals Fraser at her most playful, singing with her own echoed vocals, while songs like “Ribbed and Veined” and “Great Spangled Fritillary” show Guthrie fiddling with sonic textures. One could argue that songs like “Sultitan Itan” and “Eggs and Their Shells” pointed toward the restrained styling of the forthcoming Victorialand, but they also come off as case studies in new sounds perhaps used later or put away for good. The centerpiece of both records is “Meloneila,” a piano-led composition on which Fraser sings in a dialect that comes off Eastern European, though I don’t believe it is an actual dialect. The track is reminiscent of what would come much later on Four Calendar Cafe and stands out among the smoother textures elsewhere on these records. While these EPs are perhaps less significant than other records, it’s hard to say that any Cocteau Twins recording is less than essential. In existence for just 15 years, the Cocteau Twins created a body of work big enough to be diverse, but not so large that we shouldn’t treasure every bit of it.