Cocteau Twins Series: THE PINK OPAQUE
The fourth in a series on the Cocteau Twins discography. A milli, a milli, a milli, a milli,
THE PINK OPAQUE by Cocteau Twins is one of the best entries in a category of albums that seems to have been especially prevalent in the 80s: early-career, single-artist compilations that were neither “just the hits” nor strictly B-sides and oddities — more like a comprehensive ad for an artist’s whole essence-thus-far.
The Smiths did this a lot, and their compilation album Louder Than Bombs remains one of my favorite records period of the 1980s — and The Pink Opaque is probably the next best such comp I’ve heard from that era. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a compilation of this type published outside the 80s.
“The Spangle Maker” — from an EP of the same name — opens mellow, thumping its way to an emotional plot-twist refrain that surprises us first with its anthemic uplift, then twists against that with a sublimely abrupt climax. The song then bursts into river-mist, crying out from the trees — before fading out as nonchalantly as it arrived.
“Millimillenary,” a song title that you have to read at least a million times, opens with a similar kind of thumping cool and a tossed-off molasses vocal — perhaps the closest Elizabeth Fraser ever comes to actually singing the words “BLAH-blah-blah-blah.” The yelping chorus brings gothic fabrics to these babbling winds, giving the whole thing the feel of a mysterious chamber dance.
“Wax and Wane” — remixed from its original form on their debut — feels downright guttural by contrast to the newer, more firmly dream pop tracks so far. This is admittedly one of my least favorite songs of theirs, even on the nascent Garlands, and here it seems so out of place as to feel less a song than an interlude. Listening to the two mixes side by side, I’d even dare to say that the new version here sounds worse — apparently attempting to clean up and streamline the muddy reverbs and effects on the original, coming out subdued, flattened, and somehow muddier in the process.
Given that this compilation ends up including one track each from the previous three studio albums, I think it’s safe to assume they wanted to find a “gateway” song that would help sell each of those respective records. I just can’t see a rationale for “Wax and Wane,” even as a representative of Garlands, over the richer “Shallow Then Halo.”
Now the record really hits its stride: “Hitherto” — from the Sunburst and Snowblind EP — is an instant favorite for me. From its reverently, reverberantly gloomy opening, through its free mixture of major-key celebration and minor-key fog, to its smoky wailing across rooftops, the track is almost itself a summary of the Twins so far.
Its heartbeat ending carries cleverly into another classic: the airy “Pearly-Dewdrops' Drops” 7” (paired with its 12” twin back on The Spangle Maker). Snare reverbs like ocean spray, gentle arpeggios like drops of sunlight, Fraser’s voice cracking with plaintive innocence…this song is, plain and simple, pure pop heaven.
In sparkles Sunburst and Snowblind’s “From the Flagstones,” a reclusive, pining declarative cry made more all the mysterious by its unusually decipherable lyrics:
At times I’ve seen you from the balustrade
At times I’ve seen you from the flagstones
And you can’t cajole
And you may cajole.
“Aikea-Guinea” — from an EP and single of the same name — fades in softly, returning to the sparkle of “Drops” and finding the ever-shifting Fraser in the mode of full-on, lofty, lilting birdsong. This is literally the kind of music birds would record, if they could — like an airborne fantasy of hopping between the clouds instead of the branches.
The golden sunshine of that song’s outro flows smoothly into the insistent, electric bell-chimes of “Lorelei,” representing for the just plain brilliant third album, Treasure. Fraser’s vocals on this gem bubble and pop in cycles, feeling like a game or puzzle of magic syllables. “Da-DUN, da-dow, da-DUM” indeed, Liz.
“Pepper-Tree” — inexplicably completing Spangle Maker, leaving us no reason to go buy the EP back in 1986 — serves here as a downtempo breather from all that bright, heavenly beauty. Though Fraser dances as ever between major and minor, the relaxed triplet groove stays firmly in the shadows on this one, its pulsing rhythms and semi-arpeggiated, slow-strummed guitar chords revealing one of the band’s more direct lines of influence to the moody, atmospheric pseudo-blues tracks often found in the films of well documented Cocteau Twins stan David Lynch.
Its clock-tick — which once concluded the Spangle Maker 12” — here sets up a “SLAM TO:” twist as “Musette and Drums” reprises its role as closer from Head Over Heels. This is shrewd use of the comp’s apparently allotted one HOH slot, as this song is by far their most self-evident Album Finisher™ yet.
Into the outro static of “Musette,” the record drifts. I would make a few changes —nsubbing out “Wax and Wane,” and finding myself underwhelmed by the fade-out-and-back-in from “Flagstones” to “Aikea” — but overall, here is one of the great compilation albums of the 1980s, making Cocteau Twins’ early songbook new.
This piece is part of an ongoing series. Find the other parts below:
Garlands + Lullabies
Head Over Heels + 3 EPs
Treasure + Aikea-Guinea
The Pink Opaque
SINISTRA BLACK is an LA-based writer-director, Transgender Anarchist killjoy, and purple translucent.
She can be found on Twitter, Facebook Pages, and other platforms, sharing humor, criticism, scorching takes, and poetic musings on the ineffable longing.
She is available for hire or album resequencing, and that’s not even a joke.
For more pop culture divination, check out Ali Wong’s Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. If you want to keep it early 80s, try Daredevil Season 2 Is the Best Rambo Movie Since First Blood. If neither of those are for you, fuck spotify tho
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