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Like an ancient parchment in need of translation.
on 24 September 2005
The cover art, with that sad, nocturnal image of a dressmaker's dummy, shrouded partially by a billowing net curtain, seems to perfectly evoke the bleak beauty of late-night isolation so central to the Cocteau Twin's sound. This album was the first of theirs that I bought, having been spurred on by a friend who still considers them to be the greatest band in the world and who sold me on their sound by citing the similarities between the Cocteau's and other artists like My Bloody Valentine, Sigur Ros and Björk, as well as 4AD label mates like The Pixies and Pale Saints.
It's true that you can detect certain superfluous similarities between those bands and this album, but, in all honesty, Treasure doesn't really sound like anything else. In fact, having subsequently purchased other Cocteau's albums, I've found that every LP that they've released sounds somewhat different to the one that came before. It's impossible to really explain their sound to someone who is unfamiliar with their work without falling back on a clutch of over-emotive and needlessly verbose descriptions, using words like glacial, fragile, fractured, haunting, ethereal, lush, lulled, incandescent, dreamlike, evocative, haunted - and so on and so on - in an attempt to sum up that distinct and magical Cocteau Twins' sound. As a result, Treasure seems to be beyond categorisation... one of those unique offerings that will delight some and infuriate others (see also; Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, Scott Walker's Tilt, Medulla by Björk or the 2002 effort by Sigur Ros), by refusing to pander to the generic conventions of rock or pop music and, instead, disappearing into it's own private world.
The overall sound of the album is dense and carefully constructed, with each song conveying a certain mood or emotion as the band move from the delicate chamber pop of opening track Ivo towards something as abrasive and rock-like as the storming Persephone. Curiously, all the song titles seem to be old-fashioned names... I'm not sure why, but again, as with the art work and the overall sound of the album it works towards establishing a mood or perhaps a state of mind that somehow makes the whole unique world that the album creates all the more believable. This was really the first album in which the Cocteau Twins as a band (...here comprising of Robin Guthrie, Elizabeth Fraser and Simon Raymonde) really started to emerge with their own sound and perspective. So, Treasure is both an improvement on their fine second album, Head Over Heels, and a joyful precursor to the sublime albums that would follow, in particular, Blue Bell Knoll, Victorialand and Heaven or Las Vegas.
The sound of Cocteau Twins (and indeed, this album) is characterised by the integration of those layered guitars with those flowing and ethereal vocals. As would become something of a trademark on subsequent albums, Guthrie's approach to the guitar here was to layer an assortment of different tracks using both electric and acoustic guitars, which were then further augmented by a variety of different guitar effects and filters, so that instead of each song possessing a regular strum, elevated by the occasional burst of lead... like in traditional rock, they instead took on a more swirling and intoxicating sound, as each of the different layers would eventually merge into one another to create one harmonious whole.
Fraser's approach to the vocals is similar... so there's not just one vocal track, there are a few different parts all sung in different keys and tempos, so that when each of the instruments come together, we get a song that is almost hypnotic. The songs are further fleshed out by the strong rhythms of bass-player Raymonde and that recognisable electronic-drum sound that gives the songs a further element of the unique and anachronistic. Treasure is a magnificent, if completely alien-sounding album that requires work on the part of the listener, with a few sessions required before the entirety of the album fully sinks in. The most oft-discussed element of the Cocteau's sound is that the lyrics are almost entirely incomprehensible, with Fraser's vocals (...sometimes sounding angelic, sometimes sounding like a Japanese schoolgirl on helium!!) really pushing the songs into another universe entirely. Her vocal style, although unique and problematic for some, has been a huge influence on a number of female singers over the last twenty years, most notably the aforementioned Björk (more obviously in her early days as a vocalist with The Sugarcubes), Dolores O'Riordan from The Cranberries and perhaps Alison Goldfrapp (particularly on some of the tracks from Felt Mountain).
Some might consider Treasure to be a difficult album, though I prefer to see it more as an album to come back to time and time again (...preferably late at night...), with each new experience exposing new ideas and interpretations that you perhaps didn't pick up on the first, second or third time. If I was going to be pretentious about it (and why not?) I'd say that Treasure is like an ancient parchment in need of translation... Plainly speaking, however, I would say that Treasure is simply one of the great alternative rock albums of the 1980's, and is a good place to start for those interested in the Cocteau Twins' sound.