The end of 1984 was a creative peak for 4AD, the label that Ivo Watts-Russell founded four years earlier. October 1 saw the release of It’ll End in Tears, a wonderful set of melancholic songs by a collective of the label’s artists called This Mortal Coil. One of the highlights on the album was Elizabeth Fraser’s ethereal cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren, sprinkled with a heavy dose of chorused guitar by Robin Guthrie.
The opener to the album was Kangaroo, Alex Chilton’s song originally performed by Big Star. The song was interpreted by Gordon Sharp, with a great arrangement by Simon Raymonde. It was hard to imagine a follow up release by the label that can match This Mortal Coil’s album, but within a month, on November 1 1984, Fraser, Guthrie and Raymonde, better known as Cocteau Twins, would do just that and release their third album. This is the story of Treasure.
The music produced by the Cocteau Twins is a great example of how popular music can be created without following usual song forms, instead relying on instrumental and vocal textures to generate a mood. Today this concept is used in popular music and films quite often, with samplers categorizing the sounds by the mood of your choice, just click the button. However at the beginning of the 1980s, when Cocteau Twins released their first albums Garlands and Head Over Heels, this was quite a unique way to produce albums. The band’s sonic textures are immediately recognizable, with the delay effects on Robin Guthrie’s guitars, the drum machines high in the mix, and above all Elizabeth Fraser’s heavenly voice. Robin Guthrie described the music as impressionistic, a perfectly fitting term. In the 2014 documentary Beautiful Noise, Robert Smith from the Cure said Treasure was the album he was listening to as he was getting ready for his wedding because it is the most romantic sound he ever heard.
For their third album Ivo suggested to the band to consider Brian Eno as producer. Eno was just coming off the recording of U2’s breakthrough album The Unforgettable Fire, which he co-produced with Daniel Lanois. After a meeting with the band, Eno quickly understood he was redundant and told them: “I am really flattered that you asked, but I’d never had have the courage to use the size of reverb that you used on Head Over Heels! You don’t need a producer, you know exactly what your music is meant to sound like. You should do it yourself.” Good observation and advice, as all of the band’s albums have been self -produced.
The recording of Treasure was done under time constraints, not the ideal situation for a band used to come into the studio with no songs ready for recording. Simon Raymonde recalls: “I remember it wasn’t the easiest record to make and it seemed to us very un-finished. The problem, and ironically perhaps the beauty of the band, was that we never demoed anything and never had any ideas before we went into the studio, so the time there, always a short time, was always stressful”.
A lot has been said about the meaning, or lack thereof, of the lyrics on this album. Not many realize that this was a perfect case of necessity being the mother of invention. Ivo recalls a phone call he got from Robin Guthrie: “You gotta come up and help, Liz has got no words. She’s completely dried up. I went up and sat with her, with a dictionary, and wrote some fourth-form poetry – I wasn’t seriously suggesting lyrics but I tried to kick start it. But it was so awful and inappropriate and not what she wanted. There, for the first time, Liz started using words more phonetically than lyrically.” Guthrie had another explanation: “Liz was never comfortable with being judged on what she’d done. The more she got comments like ‘The voice of God’ the less confidence she had in what she was writing. So she started to disguise what she wrote, or split the words up in the wrong places.”
Ivo gets the honor of the opening song on the album being named after him. The song was originally called Peep-Bo but the band made it a tribute to the label head and their mentor:
This was the first Cocteau Twins album with Simon Raymonde, whom Guthrie and Fraser met during the recordings of It’ll End In Tears. The sound of the band changed significantly with him, and he had a major influence on the material becoming more dreamy and textured. Raymonde on the experimentation during the making of the album: “It certainly is different. We weren’t afraid to experiment and loved nothing more than getting a new pedal or piece of outboard and throwing the manual away so we’d not be using it the same way others would.” One of my personal favorites on the album is a good example of this direction, the ambient track Otterley:
The song titles on Treasure are all pseudo-mythological single words. Elizabeth Fraser on the song titles choice: “I thought it was a really good idea because I thought, well, what are people gonna see in these names? They’re gonna realize it’s got nothing to do with mythology and all that bollocks. Well, it’s not bollocks, but I foolishly thought people wouldn’t think that we were into that sort of thing.” Here is another favorite, Amelia:
An important element on the album is the sound Robin Guthrie was able to produce from the EMU Drumulator drum machine. The EMU drum machine was released a year before the album was recorded and was immediately adopted by Howard Jones on his album Human’s Lib in 1983. While not as ubiquitous as the Roland TR-808 drum machine, it was used by a number of popular artists and their signature songs, most recognizably on Tears for Fears’ Shout and Depeche Mode’s Everything Counts.
Guthrie installed the Rock Drums sound chip to get those bombastic drum sounds. Back then add-on sounds were actual memory chips that you had to put into the machine’s circuit board. Programming the machine was a tedious effort, and if the drum track was a not a trivial pattern repeating itself throughout the song but rather an elaborate sequence as in many songs on Treasure, you had your work cut out for you. Almost all songs on the album have that distinct drum machine sound, Persephone is a good example:
The album got the band an increased exposure in the media and bigger turnout in live performances. The album remained for 8 weeks in the national album charts and peaked at #29 on November 18 1984. The #1 position that week was held by Wham! Quite the range in music tastes by British record buyers. On the indie chart they fared much better and peaked at #2. It was 4AD’s most successful album to date. The band, however, did not appreciate the media attention that ensued. Guthrie: “I’ve always detested Treasure. Not because of the record, but because of the vibe at the time, when we were pushed into all that kind of arty-farty pre-Raphaellite bullshit. And so I was just really ashamed of that record.” Raymonde: “We just sort of recorded loads of things and then the album came out. It’s like an unfinished record with probably two good pieces in there somewhere. It’s our worst album by a mile.” Interestingly another great album released in 1984, Without Mercy by The Durutti Column, was disowned by its creator.
In a blunt move at a time when music videos were a must for chart success, the band released no singles and no official videos to accompany the album.
But unlike the opinion of the musicians who created it, Treasure is undoubtedly one of the band’s, and its era, most interesting albums. It has a quality that draws you into the music and takes you into dreamy landscapes. A quote from the band’s website sums it well: “The music on Treasure disconnects the listener from reality on many levels, creating distinct and non-corporeal atmospheres conducive to free-association.”
We close this review with another dreamy highlight from the album, Pandora. It is easy to see where many artists that later came to be categorized as dream pop or shoegaze took their influence from.
The following sources have been referenced during the writing of this article:
Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD, by Martin Aston
Cocteau Twins’ website, in particular the History section.
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