I don't remember how I became aware of the Cocteau Twins. I first heard their EP Love's Easy Tears and their compilation The Pink Opaque. The first track on The Pink Opaque is 'The spangle maker'. It may well be my favorite song of the entire modern music catalogue, which makes it the obvious choice to inaugurate this project.
Cocteau Twins, comprised for the most part by guitarist Robin Guthrie, vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and bassist Simon Raymonde, formed in 1979 and disbanded quietly in 1996. Theirs is a somewhat difficult sound: heavy and light at the same time, beautiful despite itself, aware of a musical heritage but remarkably free of influence nonetheless.
Structurally and sonically, 'The spangle maker' is archetypal of the middle, most robust Cocteau Twins period, which I locate as the span from Treasure to Blue Bell Knoll. A spare drum machine track matched by a bass drive the song in an unwavering, un-syncopated eighth note march. The bass does nothing more than express the tonics of a simple two chord progression that does not change throughout the entire song.
Atop that walks a second, higher bass track that barely but deliberately elaborates the chord progression. It is an elegantly simple structure that supports the vocal melody, which is, in turn, a slightly more complex elaboration of the same chord progression. These four - drum, bass, bass and vocal - function as a musical kaleidescope which develops and loops back upon itself. The remaining element is the wash of feedback from the guitar; it works in contrast to the other instruments, and it ties into the song through the texture it shares with Liz's voice. This feedback is subtle and refined, an example many of the shoegazers who followed might have studied a little more carefully.
Of the band's defining characteristics, the ultimate is the general indecipherability of Elizabeth Fraser's lyrics. While almost all of their songs contain a word or phrase which is easily understood, I estimate unscientifically that well over 80% of what she sings throughout the Cocteaux discography is very difficult to translate. Up until their final album Milk & Kisses no lyrics had been printed, and Liz had declined to divulge any of them. The attempts people have made to interpret her words range from the earnest but willful to the laughable and cavalier. This beautiful, strange condition of her singing is almost without precedent in popular music: think of another vocalist who is generally considered to be singing without language, but who is largely unintelligible (campy Yma Sumac in the Fifties?) It frees Cocteau Twins fans to customize our relationship with the music. We have no choice but to forge our own sensibility regarding her singing.
In 'The spangle maker' the lyric is a meditation, with lines and clear elements (droplet, spangle maker, spangle baby, broke and winded) repeated like a mantra. The tone is cool; the dynamic grows through each verse, then drops back and builds up again. This coolness is not all that remarkable... until three quarters into the song, when everything changes, even though so much stays the same.
With a crescendo of feedback and the addition of a synthesized chorus to fill out the arrangement, the lyric and Liz's tone change to rapture. A survey of lyric websites shows a general consensus that her first words after this change are 'his part of the plan' but that is just false. It seems absurd to insist that she sings 'it's pomegranate' but the more time you spend with the Cocteau Twins, the less absurd that might become. Regardless, this last minute is as emotional and spiritual as any in the modern canon, and the brilliance of the song is to take the three earlier minutes to prepare the listener to experience it. One witnesses a raw, sublime statement of meaning and purpose: an absolute gift.