Twinlights (Capitol 30548)
Of the many great records the Cocteau Twins have made, the one I return to most is probably the most unusual one in their discography, essentially an "acoustic" EP, meant as a teaser for the 1996 Milk & Kisses album.
I wonder if the band themselves thought of Twinlights as any more special than their slew of previous EPs, and yet listening I can't imagine them not immediately seeing how much it stands out as a masterpiece.
Extremely beautiful, deeply moving, and probably the single saddest thing ever, Twinlights takes everything the Cocteau Twins have ever done and raises it to a new level, finding a coalescence of ideas and emotions in a totally new context. In calling it sad, I don't mean in an "I'm so depressed" wallow a la The Cure, but rather a deep numbing grief. I won't read vocalist Elizabeth Fraser's life into the music on this CD, because it is trasmitted directly through the music.
Fraser's sometimes-wordless, sometimes-lyrical vocal style is revealed to be just as gorgeous, if not more so, away from the wash of reverb, drum machines, overdubs, and swirly guitars that characterize many of the Cocteau Twins' proper albums. She is backed mainly by piano, some strings, vibes and light synth, and some guitar, tastefully arranged, but it is really her voice that makes this EP shine so brightly.
It is not that the stripped-down arrangements reveal her previously hidden lyrics, and in fact I don't think I would be able to write down more than three or four phrases from the lyrics here.
It is simply the feeling that is captured, the tone of the songs themselves played as chamber music, that makes me respond so deeply. Short as it is and inconspicous, Twinlights nonetheless touches me in places few recordings do of any style. (Keep your jokes to yourself, joke-ass.) It is a remarkable, essential recording, probably my favorite new recording of the 90s, and for some reason, almost entirely overlooked.
The songs are a blend of new and old "Rilkean Heart" and "Half-Gifts" are songs that would later appear on Milk & Kisses in standard Cocteau style (in both cases, quite a bit less emotionally direct); "Golden-Vein" is new and exclusive to this EP, and "Pink Orange Red" is a remake of a 1985 cut from the Tiny Dynamine EP.
"Rilkean Heart" is probably the most "up" song on the album, which is not to say it's a happy song, although I think it'd be a great wedding song for someone who didn't care what Grandma Grace thought. Extremely pretty ballad. "Golden-Vein" is a dreamy ballad that wouldn't be out of place on a Julee Cruise album, but minus the retro posturing. Some great Beatles chords in this one.
"Pink Orange Red" is severely deep, dangerously sad, and very brave, finding layers in the song that the original version barely hinted at. Quite affecting. "Half-Gifts," which closes the EP, is as emotionally devastating as anything I've ever heard, truly one of the best vocal performaces I've ever heard, right up there with Nina Simone or Chet Baker at their most naked (but minus the shotgun shots, or conversely the kicked-in teeth).
It's the kind of song that seems to stop time, something of a musical Narnia, served very well by a sensitive string arrangement. At the end Fraser is utterly revealed, and yet when you think back you don't know just what was revealed. Yet perhaps that defines great musical performance and this is as true and pure as musical expression gets, in my opinion.
The ultimate rainy-day disc, Twinlights is a strong testament to the Cocteau Twins' songwriting as well as to the musical depth of each of their members (Fraser in particular, obviously). Each of the songs bears a sort of new-agey stamp that serves the band well, somewhat like that undefinably "adult contemporary" sound that Everything But the Girl had on their mid-80s albums like Acoustic.
At 14 minutes, this EP shows that perfection need not be sustained by length (my sexual performance routinely proves that), and yet I would hardly qualify it to say it's a "special EP" or a "masterful short-form album."
Twinlights is as powerful as any CD out there, be it Kind of Blue or Elgar's Cello Concerto. My reaction to it is as difficult to pinpoint as Elizabeth Fraser's lyrics, but ultimately the only important thing is how amazing it is. If any music was ever important, this surely is.
Review by Clancy Draw