English as a Second Language: A Salute to the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth FraserBy Tim Anderson
January 27, 2012
The late eighties were a great time to be a fanboy of weirdo new wave ladysingers from outer space (mainly Britain). It seemed like every time you turned on your new favorite show, 120 Minutes, some wackadoodle dame dripping with otherworldly moxie was popping up sporting a leotard or a tutu or a completely bald head, leaving your mouth gaping in wonder at the sheer brilliance of it all. You had your helium-voiced ethereal fantasist (Kate Bush), your ferocious and feline Weimar Republic throwback/riding crop enthusiast (Siouxsie Sioux), your tiny elfin powder keg (Bjork of the Sugarcubes), your scary trannie android (Annie Lennox of Eurythmics), and your testy and tempestuous ingénue (Sinead O’Connor). All of these ladies had allure to burn and the musical chops to back it all up.
But there was one lady, from a very distant star (Grangemouth, Scotland), who truly stood head and shoulders above the rest in what she brought to the table. Not only was Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins an alabaster-skinned ice princess with a mystifying hairstyle–she also had one of the most gorgeous voices to which pop music had ever born witness. With a staggering range that took it from the gutter to the stars in effortless swoops, and an easy way with melody and multi-tracked harmonies, Fraser’s voice was downright operatic in the sense that, unlike all of her peers, she sounded as if she could actually acquit herself quite nicely in an actual opera. (Of course, it would be one performed by an orchestra of hologram robots and staged on the distant planet of Mongo, but it would still be an opera.)
The first glimpse I got of Elizabeth Fraser was in 1988, when the video for “Carolyn’s Fingers,” a single from Blue Bell Knoll, the Cocteau Twins’ fifth album—and the first to get major label distribution in the U.S.—was in regular rotation on MTV’s “alternative” shows, such as the aforementioned 120 Minutes and its daytime counterpart PostModern MTV. She was exquisitely weird-looking–her short mess of kinky hair was tamed with Dep (or whatever) and styled (sort of) atop her head like a lopsided valentine, and she stood against a spectral blue background dressed in an all-white ensemble so un-rock-‘n-roll that Ms. Fraser wouldn’t have looked out of place if she’d worn it to an after-service luncheon down at the Presbyterian church. Her bandmates, guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde, were also alluringly pale and otherworldly, but this was Elizabeth’s show.
Her voice stopped me in my tracks, as did her ice blue eyes and her soft, smiling face. And the song itself was a gorgeous wash of glacial guitar and epic, angelic vocals beamed in from the celestial moons of Tatooine or some shit. But what were these mysterious words this woman was uttering that sounded so unlike any language I’d ever heard? Was she singing in Klingon? Elvish? Scottish?
After hearing this celestial chorale, I of course spent the next few months feverishly tracking down and buying up any and all Cocteau Twins imports I could get my sweaty little teenage hands on. And as I immersed myself in her band’s spacey, cold-to-the-touch back catalog, I learned one simple truth–there was no way Liz Fraser was singing any human language. She was just forming her mouth into sounds that sounded good and letting those sounds be the lyrics. Album after album, song after song, there was no telling what on earth was happening in her world. Was she singing about gumdrops and unicorns? Egg drop soup? Gang warfare? Yes. All of these things. Or none of them, maybe? Who knew? I had to travel far back in time, to the dark, primordial year of 1982, in order to hear Ms. Fraser utter any word you would find in a dictionary. A few songs on first album Garlands, amid all the twittery yelping and staccato-hiccup vocals Liz was once wont to engage in, included a handful of real phrases of English: “stars in my eyes, stars at my feet” – “I could die in a rosary” – “winged water, feathered river”. Your typical early Goth pap– nothing that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bauhaus song. But after flirting with human language early on, Elizabeth Fraser dove headfirst down the rabbit hole and spent the rest of the eighties throwing the world’s linguists for a loop.
This was a revelation: that someone could dispense with language altogether and just use their voice as an instrument. It was also a singular self-effacement in the context of a decade that gave us such strong “Look at me!” attention hogs as Morrissey, Robert Smith of the Cure, and, yes, the ladies mentioned in the first paragraph above, not to mention the mainstream Queen Bees of the Me-decade like Madonna, Boy George, and Bono. We may not have been able to always figure out what all these singers were going on and on about (what’s a Lovecat, for example?), but they were most definitely singing real words used to convey any number of real meanings. “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore” – “Let’s Go to Bed” – “Love and Anger” – the singers behind all of these songs, delightfully weird as they may have been, were, when it came down to it, relatable as humans.
But Elizabeth Fraser? She was a blurry blotch of brilliant ambiguity, an otherworldly seraph floating on a cloud of compelling, vertiginous vagueness and hiding behind a veil of hyper-imaginative deflection. Liz gave away nothing about herself in her lyrics. Even her song titles, though written in Roman letters, were bizarre transmissions from an outer-galactic polar volcano, though they were mercifully transcribed into English on the record sleeves: “A Kissed-out Red Floatboat”? “Cherry-Coloured Funk”? “The Itchy Glowbo Blow”? “Ella Megalast Burls Forever”? Whatever are we to make of these phrases, Elizabeth? Sure, sometimes she came down to earth and threw us a bone with a “Love’s Easy Tears” or a “Sigh’s Smell of Farewell,” or, you know, perhaps a “Blood Bitch,” just to prove that she’s human like the rest of us (and, at heart, an adorable little Goth). But then she’d go all sphinx-like once again with ditties like “Fotzepolitic” or “Aikea-Guinea.”
In contrast to her contemporaries, Elizabeth Fraser was a completely blank slate. The only entry-point into Liz’s world was her voice. No one could possibly know what that voice was saying, but it sure was beautiful. Therefore, the songs—these gorgeous, majestic, spine-tingling cathedrals of sound—could mean whatever you wanted them to mean. Did you just get dumped? Liz understands. Grandma died? Liz’ll take care of it. Failed your driver’s test? Liz has you covered. Coming to terms with your terrible homosexuality? Let Liz handle it. Just woke up with blood on your hands in a strange hotel room? Liz knows and she’ll make it better. (You should probably call your lawyer, though.)
Interestingly, it was when Liz started peppering her songs with more recognizable English on the Cocteau’s 1993 album Four Calendar Café that the internal dynamics within the band started fraying. On several tracks on the album, Elizabeth, who was romantically involved and had a child with guitarist Robin Guthrie, sang of domestic strife and romantic ambivalence. “Are you the right man for me/Or are you toxic for me?” she sang on single “Bluebeard.” “Is this what my body says? Use me, drain me, fall around me,” she sighed on “Theft, and Wandering Around Lost.” Though she employed a bit of English on the band’s final album, 1996’s Milk and Kisses, she largely reentered the Cloud of Lyrical Impenetrability on most of the songs such as “Eperdu,” “Tishbite,” and “Violaine.” After this last triumphant album, Fraser and Guthrie’s relationship, as well as the band they had made together, imploded and receded into legend.
The Cocteau Twins released eight albums, eighteen singles and EPs, and a number of collaborative recordings during their fourteen-year run from 1982 to 1996. (The most memorable of the latter, by the way, is Liz and Guthrie’s cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren,” which you should watch immediately. Do it now.) That’s a lot of songs, very few of which giving us even the slightest clue as to the Mystery of Liz. To this day Elizabeth Fraser remains an enigma wrapped in a riddle folded into a puzzle and then combined with a larger riddle and magically reduced to a smaller but still quite complicated puzzle that morphs into a conundrum that then disappears into a black hole. This is obvious.
Criminally, Ms. Fraser hasn’t released a solo album in the sixteen years since she was a Cocteau Twin, with her most high profile musical outing being the three tracks she sang on Massive Attack’s 1998 album Mezzanine. For years it has been rumored that she was working on a solo album for Blanco y Negro records, but nothing has ever materialized. She released one song called “Underwater” in 2000, but nobody heard it because it was a limited edition of only 200 copies.
Some exciting news came in 2005 when it was announced that the reformed Cocteau Twins would be headlining the Coachella Festival in California. But it was not to be–Elizabeth pulled out of the appearance after realizing she simply couldn’t face working with her ex-bandmates anymore. In November of 2009 she released a lovely song called “Moses” as a tribute to a friend who had recently died, and chatter about a solo album began anew. But now here we are in 2012, and it’s still radio silence from Our Lady Fraser.
In a 2009 interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Liz, was as hard to reach as ever, though for once, she laid out in plain English what was behind all her otherworldly warblings:
She has always struggled to write lyrics, she says, but suddenly something will click and she “goes with the sound and the joy” – that’s why she sings sounds and words that have no meaning, of which she can only make sense later. As she puts it, “I can’t act. I can’t lie.”
So when you were singing along with Liz Fraser as she chirruped some flibberty lyrical nonsense in whatever song—was that a Cherry Coke mention in “Iceblink Luck”? A reference to Sudan in “I Wear Your Ring”? Something about lettuce leaves and Lois Lane in “Summerhead”?—she didn’t know what she was saying any more than you did. Perfect.
Elizabeth Fraser may not have known what her subconscious was conveying in the vast majority of the songs she sang, but she still sang like she meant every word.
Come back, Liz. It’s been way too long, and right now the world needs more of your sublime cherry-coloured funk. Or, you know, whatever you want to call it.
Just a note to say how much I enjoyed this piece. The style flows easily and I get a powerful sense of the music and why you love it.
I remember when I got my first Cocteau Twins EP. A kind acquaintance/sales clerk at Moby Disc loaded me up with things I needed to hear and there was no turning back. Sweet, fun piece. Such an amazing voice. Hope she does come back to us with a message from the future… past… Mordor… San Fernando Valley circa 1982…
you forgot to mention her vocals on one of the lord of the rings movies, during the closing credits, of course. (& she put all the other various guest vocalists on notice, too…) otherwise, a terrific appreciation…
wow, i somehow totally forgot about the LOTR song! thanks for the correction!
That’s because that was Enya!
Enya may have sung on LOTR. Not disputing that. However, Elizabeth Fraser has also. Twice. On two of the early LOTR films.
Thanks for such a great tribute to Liz. It’s nice to know others still remember her, too. It’s time to reminisce; Blue Bell Knoll coming up! You could have also mentioned “Downside Up” from Peter Gabriel’s millennium project…
I Knew it! LOL. Brilliant. Tim
Tim thank you for a great article on this amazing songbird. Liz Frazer and Cocteau’s never really got their due in America. Even to this day, only a few outside goth clubs can tell you much about them. The American music scene has always had bad taste, never appreciating this real treasure from Scotland. The Cocteau’s came and went. I’m so glad I was able to see Liz and Co. perform some of their magical songs live on the Heaven or Las Vegas Tour in 1994.
This was good until you dissed robert smith. Then I stopped reading lol.
Beautifully and skillfully articulated. Apart from one sh*t, I thoroughly enjoyed your piece.
Still listen to them to this day. I imagine this is how a faerie opera would sound. It can be quite entoxicating at times.
excellent piece- fun to read, and a great tribute to Liz Frazer
Just a word on language and its use….you use far too many adjectives,
Hi Tim, I’m a little late I know to this thread but had to stop and say what a wonderful piece of writing in praise of The Cocteau Twins, particularly Elizabeth Fraser (she lives down the road from me…well that’s my 15 minutes). I laughed I nearly cried! (yes I’m also a Moz and Cure fan). Being a person who is always late to the party I came across the Cocteau Twins in the late 80’s, I had been listening to a lot of Indie bands but this star gazing lot changed all that! Thanks a lot for this ‘essay’…loved it!
errrr…better call that Shoe gazing…not Star gazing
I first heard Elizabeth Fraser when a friend returned to Vancouver from a trip to London and she had the Song to the Siren 12″ single (so very early ’80s) I became a devotee immediately and remain one to this day. In the early ’90s I saw Cocteau Twins perform in a church in Montreal and was so grateful for the opportunity that I had tears in my eyes throughout most of the concert. Her voice will live forever in my heart.
I don’t think you can use ‘too many’ adjectives. But that’s just my humble opinion.
That was my response to ‘Jimmy’ about the too many adjectives. Tim I loved your piece of writing on one of my favorite bands of all time. I was first turned onto the Cocteau Twins by my old friend, ex brother in law and former boss in the US Navy back in 1993 and I’ve been enthralled with them ever since! Loved reading your article and your style of writing Tim!
she was la unique human being of canalize so as the extreme human sense and ulterior sense of universe that we dont know, bringing it to the Earth, as if she being the God´s voice; sincerily all of us who lived in 80 and 90 were people fuckingly lucky to live her vocation and ulterior art.
Oh … I am always so unfashionably late to the party so, apologies but I just have to tell you:
The cover of ‘Song to The Siren’ is not a Cocteau Twins track. It was done by This Mortal Coil, who were a collective led by Ivo Watts-Russell founder of the British record label 4AD. *¹Although Watts-Russell and John Fryer were the only two official members, the band’s recorded output featured a large rotating cast of supporting artists, many of whom were otherwise associated with 4AD, including members of Cocteau Twins, Pixies, and Dead Can Dance.*
There are other corrections I could mention but really, because it is such a good piece of writing it would just be annoying nit picking on my behalf and anyway, my dog is kicking me so I have to go.
Sigur Ros & Elizabeth Fraser have a new collaboration out since 18th August and Oh! My heart swelled with joy to hear Ms. Fraser singing something new. Of course it’s Beautiful. Please go check it out.
One last thing. It appears an imposter is impersonating me. I am & always have been the DieselEstate. I note the subtle difference of a space in the middle but, even so, it is a bit much, no?
*¹courtesy of wikipedia.
Is there a bad Cocteau twins song? Of course not! As brilliantly beautiful as Elizabeth’s voice is though (no comparison) very little attention is given to EF’s memorable melodies. After all there is no ‘catchy’ lyrical chorus to sing along to, but the song melody stays long in the mind. You only have to go listen to Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” without Elizabeth’s mesmerising performance (there is an instrumental version on youtube) to hear what you’re missing (a lot). Sadly for the world, Elizabeth’s recent output has been limited to a staring roll of backing vocals. But there are a few gems out there in particular…: “She walks through the fare,” “Mary,” “At last I am free.” To name three of my favourites.
Really enjoyed this article… you hit it on the head. Here it is, 2021, and I’m listening to the Cocteaus more than ever… and still hoping to hear more of Elizabeth Fraser than the few songs here and there. Love the music forever.