What Dream-Pop May Come
On their debut album, 1982's Garlands, Scottish outfit Cocteau Twins checked in on the gloomier side of post-punk: all gothic pallor, industrial clank, and so much 'space' in their sound that it bordered on menacing; vast, empty, mysterious. Working without a drummer, the band employed guitar, bass, and voice, creating a large sound reverberating around eerie, frigid wastelands of the industrial variety.
There was no disconnect or radical revolution between their first record and their second, but, in contrast, Head Over Heels was an album exploding with color. With original bassist Will Heggie having departed, the Twins were reduced to their essence: Robin Guthrie's sweeping, syrupy, dreamy layers of effects-blasted guitar; and Elizabeth Fraser's swooping, honeyed, heavenly voice. Here, the band sets foot down the path that would come to define them, though doesn't quite step into the otherworldly, ethereal, ambient 'dream-pop' songworlds their future, more-famous records would inhabit.
Fraser is, notably, a more earthly presence herein. Though she'd win renown for singing in wordless wails of no known language, here she's wielding hard syllables. The glory, then, is in the way that voice of hers obliterates the starch of the English language —and the hacking cough of Scots accent— in its pure, utter grandeur. On "Five Ten Fiftyfold," she tosses around the words "wheezing and sneezing and" over and over; on "Musette and Drums," it's "she turned 13 oh"; and each time they're transformed into poetry via the power of their incantation.
Soar and Swoon
"Musette and Drums" is the album's grand finale; its banal, functional title not suggesting the over-the-top, sky-straddling grandeur that Guthrie's employment of a musette and drums can summon. Opener "When Mama was Moth" introduces Head Over Heels with an eerie ambience; all horror-film synths and whirring tape-hiss. But, in between, the album finds far more frivolity than is the band's renown.
"Multifoiled" is a syncopated, downright jazzy, noir-movie plod through lounge-bar piano and cologne-drenched curtains; "My Love Paramour"'s souped-up drum-machine, synth handclaps, and over-egged production summon the excesses of circa-'83 studio sonics; and "In the Gold Dust Rush" has a raw vocal and a flayed acoustic guitar that are, I guess, supposed to be vaguely suggestive of country music.
But nothing stands out more than "Sugar Hiccup," a glorious, pirouetting waltz of a pop song whose glinting guitars and swooning singing basically set the template for The Sundays entire career. Here, as Fraser sings "heavens curtsey and bow," her words illuminate the thrilling, impossibly-romantic sound of the song.
As total, Head Over Heels isn't Cocteau Twins most cohesive, singular LP. Nor their most successful. Nor, many would argue, their best. But it captures the band at a point of utter arrival: discovering a sound that would grow to be so singular; finding a way of working —with guitars, voice, drums, and, most importantly, the studio as stylistic tool— that would effectively spark the start of the shoegaze movement.
It's, in that way, more of a landmark than anything Guthrie and Fraser did thereafter.
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: October 31, 1983