As a younger gent in the late ’80s through the mid ’90s, I fancied myself one of the dark crowd. I lived in my painted leather biker jacket, eye-liner, white button-down shirt, black jeans & Doc Martens. Lurking by the record bins at Wax Trax, deciding which t-shirt at FashioNation most fit my look while being sure to piss off my religious step-father, and dancing in the corner at the Wreck Room sipping on my Amaretto Sours, I listened to some truly terrible music which I convinced myself at the time was genius: Nosferatu, Rosetta Stone, Valor-era Christian Death, etc.
But there were brilliant bands we wannabe children of the night listened to as well, and many of them were on the seminal British indie label 4AD. Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Pixies, Dead Can Dance, The Birthday Party and others were on regular rotation in my 5-disc CD player and in my car stereo. To this day, I consider 4AD one of the finer record labels around, in spite of a few rough years it had in the late ’90s and early 00’s.
This Mortal Coil, one of the most interesting and in my opinion brilliant projects on 4AD, was started by the label’s founder Ivo Watts-Russell. Russell and record producer John Fryer – the only two constant members of the band – gathered members of bands signed by or associated with 4AD and together this supergroup with rotating members created three albums of original works and uniquely ambitious covers. While both Filegree & Shadow (1986) and Blood (1991) are among my favorite albums, it’s easy for me to put their first full-length It’ll End in Tears (1984) at the top of my list.
It’ll End in Tears features multiple members of both Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins as well as several other performers. The album, in typical This Mortal Coil fashion, is a dark and brooding but ultimately beautiful piece of work.
It opens with a cover of Big Star‘s “Kanga Roo,” written by Alex Chilton. The treatment given it by Gordon Sharp and Cocteau Twins’ Simon Raymonde sets a tone for the album: heavy, melancholic, almost overwhelming in spiritual distress. Big Star’s “Holocaust” is also covered, sung by Howard Devoto of Buzzcocks and Magazine in a fashion I think unique among his recordings.
Following “Kanga Roo” is a cover of Tim Buckley‘s “Song To the Siren,” sung by Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, who quite simply steals the album with this and her other performance on the album, a cover of “Another Day,” originally performed by influential singer/song-writer Roy Harper. Fraser sings both songs in her signature style; an angelic soprano, made more powerful in its turning of words into almost incomprehensible aural emotion, carrying one with it as it soars and falls like some verbal Icarus.
At points I have wished that these songs were on a separate album, because by the time one has heard them both, Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard is overpowered in her songs which follow. Her vocal performances on “Waves Become Wings” & “Dreams Made Flesh,” while wonderful, have a hard time standing up to the sweeping beauty of Fraser’s vocals. But after listening to the album hundreds of times – which I literally did in those days – I learned to appreciate them as a way to settle my soul; a sort of auditory coffee to clear my senses after the perfume of what came prior. It may sound like I don’t enjoy these songs, but that’s not true – I adore them. I’m just always in a place after hearing Fraser’s vocals that even Chopin’s Nocturnes would necessarily bring me back down to earth.
One other song which has always stood out to me on It’ll End in Tears is Robbie Grey‘s of Modern English contribution “Not Me.” It stands apart not only in being an excellent song, but also in style. It’s a New Wave offering on what is an otherwise delicate album, and while at first having struck me as entirely incongruous, it quickly became a song I looked forward to reaching on the journey; almost a reward for delving into the depths of emotion brought by Watts-Russell and crew.