Cocteau Twins - Stars And Topsoil: A Collection
Half the time that is what the Cocteau Twins sounded like to my ears. It was axiomatic for anyone listening to this band that you did not try to decipher the lyrics. If you tried, you would fail. They were meant to be obscured by sound and as sound they were - deliberately so. This was never meant to be easy. It was never meant to be accessible. This was meant to be a rejection of the structured format of a whole tradition of popular music. There can be little doubt that the Cocteau Twins were one of the most unusual bands to emerge out of the ruins of punk in the early 1980's. However, there is little which can enable the casual listener to assign a time to each song. They are carefully mixed, later songs against earlier ones and unless you are familiar with the material, there is little to distinguish between earlier and later tracks. Don't bother anyway. That is not really the point.
This treatment of the human voice as merely an instrument rather than the method by which ideas and imagery are conveyed to the listener was, in a sense, the ultimate expression of the dream pop genre which the Cocteau Twins dominate. Once you move beyond a belief that the words should tell you something, you reach a point where all the imagery and meaning you need in a piece of music is conveyed by the music itself. In essence, with the Cocteau Twins, each song is an instrumental. This is a profoundly disturbing concept to many and the Cocteau Twins were, because of it, extremely controversial throughout their career.
And of course, the question most asked about the vocals is usually something along the lines of "what language is that?"
Musically it is excellent, with the arrangement and instrumentality being top-notch. However, there is frequently, especially on their later work, little of what would be classed as normal musical structure. The distinction between stanza and refrain disappears and vocal instrument drifts across an at times quite eerie musical soundscape. The vocals are often haunting but forget the words: you cannot understand what they are saying most of the time and frequently there is jumbling up sounds of what are essentially ordinary English words to create what is a unique effect to say the least. Forgetting the words as you allow the sound to drift over you, mellow and smooth, is what the Cocteau Twins were all about. This was the essence of the dream pop the band were all about.
One of the fascinations for me is the way the sound the Cocteau Twins developed, gradually evolved into shoegaze. Once you put this style of vocalising alongside an immense dose of feedback courtesy of the Jesus and Mary Chain's iconic first album, Psychocandy, you have the essential building blocks of the classic shoegaze sound. The development of one half of that sound is really captured on this album. Stars and Topsoil is the Essential Cocteau Twins - their singles and most of their best work is contained on this compilation. I am glad they put out this compilation as I never really could take too much of their output at one go.
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