I have a singing voice that is adequate for holding a tune, but little more. One time, and one time only, have my vocal efforts been met with something like reverie from an audience. An audience of one, in the men’s toilets of a hotel in northern Finland just before Christmas 2003. We were, I suspect, both a little drunk. Certainly, I was, and he soon would be. Nevertheless, in my foolish attempt to mimic the oral ice-sculpture of Elizabeth Fraser singing Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren I must have channelled something that wetted a desiccated memory in my listener.
“What is that?” It wasn’t a casual question. “I’m sure I heard that in a pub in Leicester, must have been ten, fifteen years ago. Been wondering what it was ever since. Beautiful female voice; just an echoey accompanying guitar, I think.”
So yes, it was Fraser’s version: the one in my head as I drunkenly warbled that had somehow arced across the years and porcelain stalls to evoke the song that had lodged in his mind after just that one listen. In those days before Shazam and Spotify, we could be transported by a piece of music and despair of ever hearing it again. Yet just a couple of minutes later he was listening to the song, headphone-embraced, on a mini-disc collection of 4AD label artists belonging to a new-found friend I’d met just a couple of hours earlier. We’d spent the evening in the hotel bar sharing an obsession with Fraser’s band, Cocteau Twins, in a spiralling bliss of cloudberry liqueur.
But now, I am resisting the siren-song of the Buckley connection (Elizabeth Fraser would later record a beautiful unreleased duet – All Flowers in Time Bend Toward the Sun – with Tim Buckley’s son, Jeff, shortly before his river-bend drowning, as her relationship with Cocteau Twins bandmate Robin Guthrie, and subsequently the band itself, imploded). Instead, with oar-blades feathered, I’m striking out for that treasure hiding on the B-side of the transitional Love’s Easy Tears EP, the song I return to most: Those Eyes, That Mouth.
I hesitate before daring to try and write about Cocteau Twins’ music at all, and especially Those Eyes, That Mouth. If I’m lending you my very heartbeat, even for just three minutes thirty-six seconds, what if it is, for you, an ice-pulse? The song is not one of their most popular and (if any are) crowd-pleasing pieces. It contains echoes of what the group were when I first fell for them, when music seemed the only thing that mattered, because the things that ought to matter were unobtainable or incomprehensible. And it contains the essence of what they would become, when life outgrew their music, yet their music swallowed that life. You can hear the transition just after the two-minute mark. A shard of ice shatters in a scrape of reverbed guitar string; Liz’s characteristically inscrutable lyric says, if only to me, “worthy of young men”; the rhythmically three-swept melodic guitar and multifoiled bass-line subtly change key, Liz’s voice ups out and away, “now we are reaching”, and that glass grenade shard of guitar falls like piled snow from the pines outside that Arctic hotel, the year our eldest child finally saw Santa Claus for real, and realised he wasn’t.
I remember with the clarity of filtered memory my first playing of Those Eyes That Mouth, over seventeen years earlier, on the day it was released: October 13th 1986. Just a couple of weeks earlier I had arrived at university, sharing a flat with my best friend from home, a fellow Cocteaus fan. A few weeks later I would catch my first sight, through the window of that flat, of the girl who was to marry me; a little later in this same room, she would be among a bunch of us chatting together after an evening at the Brewhouse, exchanging lengthening glances that would have a friend later mock that I had stars in my eyes. Now, Russ and I danced round the room like the wise idiots we were, and as that guttering guitar sliced a bleeding smile across the upturned face of the song when the needle dialled two-thirds across the vinyl, laugh lines crazed our meeting eyes, and our tinderbox hearts blazed.
Other records might have done the same in those few years when we seemed to live whole lives by the day, but few other than Cocteaus songs continue to feel fresh and vital across the looped rope of time to the present, while still containing that half-gift of nostalgia. We need a word for the experience of compressing time that this music creates with all that sonic stuff there are no words for, because if there were words we wouldn’t need the music (and some ethnographers speculate – it seems to me more than plausibly – that perhaps we wouldn’t have words but for music). I think of the Portuguese saudade, mainstay of the Fado song tradition, and of the Welsh hiraeth – a longing, a yearning for an ideal of home, a heart’s ease, that perhaps there never was and perhaps never will be. This song, unlike most Cocteaus’ tracks, ends on a long slow fade, taking crystalline beauty with it, to who knows where.
Thirty-three years after first hearing it, as I listen to this song for the however-many-thousandth time, making coffee in the kitchen of our home, my wife approaches the doorway. She’s heard the music, sees me, and her arms come up, as if holding something, as if to a child, as if to a lover, as if to a friend. Before we embrace, for the first time in weeks, our faces crease, laugh lines haunting our smiles, and I look at her. Really look at her. It only takes a moment, in the collapsed time this music creates: