An insight into the Cocteau Twins, a band who transcended their small – town, Scottish roots to create a sonic world unparalleled in music history.
Formed in 1979, the Cocteau Twins have cemented themselves into music history as pioneers of dream pop and shoegaze, and enjoyed a successful, albeit turbulent, career until they disbanded in 1997. I’d heard of them for a while, but only started listening to them during the lockdown in 2020 when I was lonely and working full-time in a warehouse. This is how my love affair with the Cocteau Twins began, and since then they have been the soundtrack to so many important parts of my life.
Heaven or Las Vegas has been the soundtrack to both falling in love and a particularly painful breakup, and their collaboration with Harold Budd on The Moon and The Melodies still reminds me of great books like Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment; the ambient and hazy album played during so many late-night reading sessions. I’ve had some amazing memories whilst they played in the background, I’ve cried to them, and I even hail from the same town as them.
Being from small-town Scotland, the Twins are unequivocally Scottish. But so many listeners, myself included for a while, don’t seem to know this. When I found out they were from Grangemouth I could hardly believe it. Often, interviewers struggled to understand their accents or their self-effacing embarrassment towards praise, surrounded in the scene by mostly English peers; they were regularly compared to fellow Scots The Jesus and Mary Chain, at times seemingly the only other Scottish act interviewers seemed to know (or care about). But the group achieved worldwide fame, and their impact on music is unparalleled. They inspired acts like Slowdive, Ride, even Prince. Their Scottish roots and their innovation are some of the few things that make me proud to call myself Scottish; that I come from the same part of the world as them. In the British alternative scene dominated by well-established acts, mostly from England, they defined themselves as singular in every approach to their music. No one was doing it like the Cocteau Twins.
Having grown up a couple of miles away from the Cocteau Twins’ native Grangemouth, it is hard for me to grasp the idea that Elizabeth Fraser – a woman who has worked with musical heroes of mine like Jeff Buckley or Massive Attack, and someone who at one point was described as having “the voice of God” – is someone that walked down streets that I’ve walked down, grew up mere miles away from where I grew up, and has left such an immeasurable impact on music history. Harder still is looking at an industrial petrochemical town like Grangemouth and reconciling with the fact that three people from here went on to pioneer dream pop, creating beautifully transcendental and ethereal music admired the world round. Their music begs the question: can we escape where we grew up? Or harder still, can we take the bleak industrial landscapes and architecture of where we grew up, and can we transform it into something beautiful?
I am not fond of my hometown, but these rare glimpses of beauty that break through make me re-evaluate where I grew up. Maybe, perhaps, there is beauty to be found everywhere.
For me, the appeal of the Cocteau Twins lies in Fraser’s (mostly) incomprehensible lyrics. Later on, she would go on to write more directly, but my favourite records are almost entirely gibberish. I think this is because I have always struggled with communicating and identifying complex feelings and thoughts. Fraser’s vocals help me make sense of the world by communicating something incommunicable, transcending language and revelling in the sheer beauty of sonic landscapes. I think that this is what truly good music should do: it should help you make sense of your place in the world and the places that surround you, help you look inwards, and make you feel connected to the world, and to other people. This is what the Cocteau Twins have done for me.