This Cocteau Twins article was written by Nick Palmer, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse
It’s amazing how much of an evolution Cocteau Twins made in just one year. 1982’s ‘Garlands,’ the first and only album Cocteau Twins made with original bassist Will Heggie, was a promising start for a band who would go onto do bigger and better things, namely ‘Head Over Heels.’ Whereas their debut wore its (very popular at the time) goth and post-punk influences on its sleeve, ‘Head Over Heels’ stood out in 1983 and on 4AD as something new.
Guitarist Robin Guthrie and vocalist Elizabeth Fraser threw off the shackles of what was seen as typical of ‘alternative music’ at the time. Whether the departure of Will Heggie had any part in this is unknown, but their sophomore effort drips with creativity, experimentation and, above all, a new focus on a lush (no, not Lush – another 4AD band) wall of instrumentation. The often self-conscious Fraser was more adventurous, but at the same time also seemed to lose some confidence in her vocals, burying them deeper in the instrumentation. This move only worked in the sound’s favour, putting Fraser more into the role of an instrument than a vocalist.
Opener ‘When Mama was a Moth’ immediately signifies a change from the pissed-off guitars of ‘Garlands’ to a thicker, dreamer and more production-heavy effort. Fraser sombrely sings over an unsettling synth dirge, which constantly threatens to spill over into something louder.
Crashing percussion and strained guitar define ‘Glass Candle Grenades’ and Guthrie does a fantastic job of making something which sounds like shattering glass, but also making it a joy to listen to.
Similarly, in ‘The Tinderbox (of a Heart)’ Fraser’s half submerged vocals make the listener question whether they’re actually hearing her warning, “They are beaten, you feel danger.” Following an unusually not-out-of-place xylophone intro, it develops into a beautiful and sad piece.
The standout track on the album, in contrast, is a celebration of all things lovely and strange. ‘Sugar Hiccup’ arrives following, what sounds like, a shower of rain and brings with it all the joy and sunshine Fraser and Guthrie have locked away, only let out occasionally on this album. Guthrie lays down a soaring sheet of shimmering guitar and Fraser confidently belts out wonderfully strange lines like “Sugar hiccup, makes a pig soar and swoon. Sugar hiccup, makes the earth tough and tumble.”
It would be a tragedy not to mention the album’s artwork, 23 Envelope (made up of Vaughan Oliver and Nigel Grierson) really outdid its previous efforts (and the rather boring ‘Garlands’ cover) with a shiny, silver-metal pool, frozen in place, a fish’s tail caught just on the right. It was a visualisation of the band’s new thicker and dreamier sound, though Guthrie was reportedly unhappy with the final product, wishing for something more vibrant.
With new bass player, Simon Raymonde, Cocteau Twins would go onto create another seven albums’ worth of sonic brilliance, some of which even surpassed ‘Head Over Heels.’ However, it was in 1983 when they first unearthed their and, by extension, 4AD’s iconic sound, thus guaranteeing this record’s place among the most significant of the label’s releases.