May 16, 2017 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
Along with Wax Trax!, no other label of the ‘80s represented such a unique and distinct sound and approach to music as 4AD did. How many other labels do you know of that’ve had their flagship group not only write a song about the label head, but name it after him? (I’m referring to Cocteau Twins’ “Ivo,” of course.) People gravitated intensely and passionately to 4AD for many reasons, but one of which is the family aesthetic they created — or at the very least, the way they were able to cradle that perception to their fans during that decade.
Ostensibly, all roads ran through 4AD patriarch Ivo Watts-Russell, culminating in him being a quasi-integral member of one of the most important acts on the label, This Mortal Coil. Time has revealed his actual musical contributions were a bit of a cheap myth that were habitually overstated, but for his part, Watts-Russell was honest about discrediting this notion, evident to all those who read the fantastic chronicling of the label, 2003’s Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD. The wire scheme for this sculpture is too large, too overreaching to chalk it up to the vision of one man, even if that’s how it can seem at times. Having said that, Watts-Russell was much more hands-on and less interested in the business side of things than most label heads, and when reading Facing the Other Way, there truly is a sort of twisted family dynamic that emerges between him and the aforementioned Cocteau Twins.
Whether they like it or not, the push-pull dynamic between him and the group, existing in various forms and levels of conflict that range from the petty (Guthrie constantly fumed at the amount of attention Watts-Russell received) to the standard artist/label squabbles (marketing, financial dust-ups), led directly to Cocteau Twins’ most triumphant and influential album, 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas.
Heaven or Las Vegas was the last truly great record the Twins put out, and it came at the tail end of a wildly impressive stretch of releases that continue to hold up shockingly well in today’s indie label climate. Actually, that’s not exactly true; all of em exist brilliantly alongside today’s music, sort of crouching adjacent to it. Never far off, but certainly not in lockstep with anything we’re super familiar with today. Notoriously surly, it’s hard to speculate if Cocteau Twins’ near flawless reputation these days has given Guthrie the peace he never seemed to achieve while making music in the group. He famously ripped Treasure, which struck many fans as more than a little strange, considering it’s almost certainly their most beloved album and still widely considered a classic in every sense of the term. As for Heaven or Las Vegas, as gleaned from a 1990 issue of Select magazine, it’s the only one of their albums that is spared from his wrath:
“We like it better than all our last records. That's why we continue to make more — because if we made the perfect record we'd sit back and say, 'We can't do any better than that.' We think all our other ones are fucking crap. I'm slightly proud of a couple of tracks on a couple of them, but essentially I'm really embarrassed about what we've done in the past.”
It was difficult to really figure out where all this hostility was coming from, and before long it becomes pretty clear this is just how Guthrie worked, how he extracted the best from himself. Much like Kobe Bryant, who was constantly searching for disrespect in any form whatsoever to drive him, push him into places his will to win wouldn’t take him on its own (no matter how ridiculous to outside observers), Guthrie needed someone (or something, anything) to push against. Singer Elizabeth Fraser and bassist Simon Raymonde weren’t considered fair game for the most part, so he holed up and railed wildly against the label, financial compensation, Watts-Russell, anything he could to generate the insatiable need to prove them all wrong and inferior. And when those didn’t work, cocaine turned him into a rage-filled pinwheel that drove him into studio delirium and brilliance.
This is hardly healthy behavior to encourage in a musician, but what the hell, it produced some truly amazing work. But by the time Heaven or Las Vegas rolled around, the coke addiction was hitting Guthrie in some bad ways, his marriage to Fraser had crumbled, and relations with 4AD were at an all-time low. Yet in complete Rumours style, Heaven or Las Vegas emerges from the chaos and somehow becomes one of the most beautiful albums ever released.
It’s truly rare to see a such an accomplished band stumble into the purest distillation of their sound so late in their career, especially since 1984’s Treasure or 1988’s Blue Bell Knoll could’ve easily represented this development. It’s also remarkable how close Heaven or Las Vegas was to their two weakest albums; they certainly left all their blood and sweat on the floor before those final releases. 1993’s Four-Calendar Cafe, followed by their last gasp studio album, 1996’s Milk & Kisses, showcase almost none of the ethereal (what, you thought I was gonna do an entire piece on Cocteau Twins without using that word?) beauty captured so effortlessly on Heaven or Las Vegas. In fact, if you’re new to Cocteau Twins and this piece is your jumping off point to their work, you would be wise to ignore those two releases completely (but be sure sure to seek out the wonderful Cocteau/Harold Budd collaboration, 1986’s The Moon and the Melodies).
Heaven or Las Vegas seems to burst out of the speakers. Every track is infused with an energy we hadn’t really seen on any of their previous albums. Blue Bell Knoll and 1986’s Victorialand are both classic albums, but if there is a criticism to be leveled against them, it’s that Guthrie allows the music to breathe too much — the listener is permitted to wander around aimlessly at times. Cocteau Twins have always excelled with space in their music, but at times, especially on Blue Bell, the soundscapes can be a little too sparse, too barren. Guthrie really isn’t fucking around here — there is not a single wasted second that someone like Watts-Russell could point to as a potential shortcoming. Heaven or Las Vegas has too much to say to allow any drift, and a lot of that has to do with Fraser. Being a new mother, she finally sounds at peace as she sings with the music, as opposed to over the layers of shimmering guitar effects on previous releases. That’s not a criticism of those records, but it’s obvious that her more restrained, confident approach on Heaven is a huge reason this album works so shockingly well.
And as purposeful as Heaven is from start to finish, each track still finds a way to evolve against itself, grow into something different than what it began as. Take the title cut: The first half is a prototypical Twins tune, with swirling guitars seemingly arriving from the cosmos, before Guthrie adds in a muscular guitar solo that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the tougher moments found on an early Echo and the Bunnymen record. It’s a complex arrangement by the end, a sly development that totally works within the context of the song. Other solos don’t wait for a climactic crescendo and just keep building on themselves from the opening seconds, and those are just as satisfying, albeit in different, more immediate ways.
“Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires” almost starts out as a stark piano ballad before seamlessly mutating into one of the rarest of Cocteau sounds: Fraser singing in rapid-fire form, almost urgently but not even shifting around her pitch a great deal. Heaven or Las Vegas is full of surprises like this, and even when the arrangements themselves don’t catch us off guard, we don’t really care all that much, as each track represents its own incredibly unique slab of beauty that, in some cases, proves to be almost a rave-up of all their best work. And I know I’ve brought up the title track already, but it’s really a primo example of this, and it stands among their strongest songs cut to record.
Even if you ignore the semi-quantum fundamental leap in songwriting found here, Heaven or Las Vegas really is a Cocteau hit parade. “Cherry-Coloured Funk,” “Iceblink Luck” (featured recently on the overwhelmingly crappy Cameron Crowe Showtime series Roadies), “Fotzepolitic,” and album closer “Frou-Frou” are all considered to be indisputable highlights in the group’s discography. Add in the title track, and half the album serves as some of their best and most memorable work. The other five songs aren’t quite on that level, but they really aren’t far off and all have strengths those five classics don’t necessarily have. At the very least, they can be seen as extremely successful bridge tracks that really can’t be criticized on any significant discernible level, both in terms of sequencing and outright effectiveness. It’s truly perfect from start to finish; not a song deserves to be skipped here.
Heaven or Las Vegas has rightfully been hailed as a classic since its release, even if more people these days think of acts like TV on the Radio or the National when it comes to 4AD. I think that has more to do with recency bias than any perceived flaw time has exposed in their music or impact. The Cocteau Twins’ legacy is one of the few that nobody even really dares to try and pulverize. Like their music, it exists in a different world where our fears are channelled into smiles, and our smiles all make sense to anybody else who loves Cocteau Twins’ music.
In time, we may come to view the ‘80s on 4AD as the Indian Summer of quantifiable beauty in popular music, as it didn’t strive to occupy any other spot besides the most lovely, peaceful corners of our imagination. It’s true that much of the label roster was a little intellectually loose… their detractors will always point to an over-emphasis on the theatrical, an almost militant worship of the raw emotional beauty music is capable of, an obsession of Watts-Russell that “infected” every corner of the music, even stretching to the cover art. Of course, that’s the very thing its adherents found so appealing during this era. 4AD had quite the run in the ‘80s, and it ended with the Cocteau Twins shooting the moon in 1990. It’s almost fitting Watts-Russell threw them off the label following Heaven or Las Vegas, a record he called in Facing the Other Way “one of the best releases on the label.” He knew it couldn’t get any better.