When the news came out that the Cocteau Twins had left their longtime home of 4AD in favor of Fontana, it felt like a betrayal. After all, the trio helped define the label’s identity in a way no other band had, thanks to their mysterious, unique, and beautiful releases. But the band wasn’t happy and hadn’t been for some time, so with the arrival of the new decade and the end of a contract, they decided to make a change. Treasure Hiding: The Fontana Years compiles almost all of their recorded material for the last chapter of their existence.
Their previous album, Heaven or Las Vegas, had been a gradual step towards a more conventional, commercial sound, and as a result performed quite well in both the charts and critical assessment. It isn’t surprising, then, that they made a stronger push with the follow-up, 1993’s Four-Calendar Café. In order to do so, the band pushed back the hazy etherial atmospherics and pushed up the vocals not only. But not only did they emphasize the vocals, Elizabeth Fraser went one step further and wrote lyrics which were by and large comprehensible and in English.
To say these developments shocked their fan base is an understatement.
Four-Calendar Café was a big disappointment for this writer. The sound was way, way too slick; hearing –– and comprehending–– Fraser’s vocals were jarring, and let’s not even go there about that absolutely hideous cover art. If they were trying to distance themselves from their past, they definitely succeeded; fans were alienated and disappointed. Yours truly snagged a cassette promo about a month before the release date that presented the album on both sides in its entirety, with nothing but a black sleeve with the title and track listing. I was not impressed. When I saw the final version with the cover art, I never even bothered to pick it up. It was a sad chapter in a band I really loved, and it felt like the end.
Over time, I’ve come to appreciate Four-Calendar Café for what it is and not what it isn’t. It is still my least favorite Cocteau Twins album, but I’m able to hear the beauty within. Twenty-five years later, ”Bluebeard” and “Evangeline,” both gorgeous songs that were released as singles, no longer come across as an attempt to mimic The Sundays. Album cuts “Pur” and “Essence” shimmer nicely with the same vibe of their previous two efforts, although “My Truth” and “Oil Of Angels” feel more like half baked sketches. Most surprising, however, are b-sides “Mud And Dark,” “Three-Swept” and “Ice-Pulse,” three very strong songs that probably should have been on the album instead of the previous two I mentioned; their inclusion definitely would have made a stronger album.
But in 1995, something interesting happened. Two EP’s were released simultaneously, bookending the sonic spectrum and making the case that the Cocteau Twins were back. The first EP, Otherness, arrived in a brightly colored neon sleeve. It contained four songs; two of them, “Seekers Who Are Lovers” and “Violane” were new and unheard, while the other two came from previous records Victorialand (“Feet Like Fins”) and Heaven or Las Vegas (“Cherry-Coloured Funk”). The four songs had been remixed into ambient bliss by Seefeel member Mark Clifford. This wasn’t your typical Cocteau Twins record; Robin Guthrie’s guitars had dissipated into something completely new, while Liz’s vocals were mixed into the trippy haze of Clifford’s soundscape. This radical departure was both vexing and intriguing; it was not unlike what Slowdive’s recently-released final album, Pygmalion.
The second EP, Twinlights, came packaged in a stark white cover that featured heavily barbed but stripped bare rose stems, save for three meek leaves. The four songs on it were equally stark; featuring piano, acoustic guitar, and a string section, this was the Cocteau Twins unplugged, and this nakedness made for a stunning listen. It featured three new songs and a remake of “Pink Orange Red,” taken from their Tiny Dynamine EP. But it is the final track, ”Half–Gifts,” that is perhaps the greatest song the Cocteau Twins ever released. It’s a painful, heart wrenching, and honest declaration of self-reliance and self-confidence in the face of utter depression. Yes, it’s a therapy song, but it’s a therapeutic song as well. Naked and vulnerable, Liz sounds near tears at points, and it’s hard not to weep when you hear the final line, we’re she chokes up while singing, “I have myself/I still have me.”
Milk & Kisses arrived in 1996, and they seemed quite ready to make up for the hiccup of their last album. The songs were more abstract, the album cover at least look like what a Cocteau Twins record should look like. Furthermore, superb singles “Tishbite” and “Violane” suggested that perhaps the misstep had ultimately proved to be beneficial in the long run and that a more commercial sound could indeed be incorporated into their unique songwriting and production techniques. “Serpentskirt” and “calfskin skirt” are superb numbers that could have appeared on a number of their previous releases with no one being the wiser, while “seekers who are lovers” and “Rilkean Hearts” are fine numbers outside of their previous EP versions. The album’s only real misstep is “Half-Gifts,” a full band rendering lovely gorgeous number that closed Twinlights. This arrangement adds a somewhat drunken calliope–like melody that distracts from the beautiful song that it is. Otherwise, Milk & Kisses was a superior return after the disappointing Four-Calendar Café.
Yet it was hard not to notice that the album felt oddly empty. It wasn’t that they were repeating themselves, nor were they trying to be something they weren’t––it just felt off. For the first time, they were being very open in interviews about their background and relationship issues, offering insights that they were not happy; Liz was opening up about her mental health issues and were forthcoming about her break up with Robin and his substance issues. Though they would embark on another tour––including a bizarre appearance on the Lollapalooza tour at the request of Lars Ulrich and Metallica, who were big fans of the band––they would soon break up, with little fanfare. Liz would retreat from the spotlight, Robin would soon set embark upon a solo career and bassist Simon Raymonde would soon launch Bella Union, a fine record label that has earned it a reputation as distinguished as 4AD. Rumors have appeared over the years of a reunion, but at this point that’s merely wishful thinking.
Some fans felt Cocteau Twins ended on a low note, having fumbled their career by leaving 4AD. Though they did falter with their first album for Fontana, Treasure Hiding proves that there was much more substance to this final chapter of their career. This collection offers a much-needed rethink and reconsideration of a neglected and undervalued segment of one of the most unique bands of the 20th-century.