In the trying stretches of our lives, it’s my observation that there are certain things that make their way into the mix, if not only to present us with a grace note.
Sometimes, you have to pay a little more attention and be on the lookout for them. Sometimes, they just waltz right into the room.
Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven or Las Vegas” was one such thing for me, making its way into my life at a time in which I very much needed to hear it.
Specifically, we’re talking about the summer of 2009. I was 21 years old, and I was angry at the world, as only a 21 year-old white male of privilege could be.
In this particular instance, I was angry because things hadn’t worked out between my friend’s girlfriend and I. Very foolishly, I’d allowed myself to fall in love with her earlier in the year. In realizing that I wouldn’t get what I wanted at the time, I subsequently took it upon myself to see most everything as miserable, ultimately, blaming my college major, and my particular pursuit of art for my predicament and failure in love.
Utterly non-sensical, I know.
To be clear, she and I never did anything scandalous, and I never helped her cheat. When she decided after their break-up that she wanted to give things between us a shot, it occurred to me (and eventually, to her too) that it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
In any case, the whole episode sent me into my last summer of college feeling the exact opposite of how I felt I should. I was zapped of almost all of my enthusiasm and motivation. This was particularly problematic, as I was soon to start an internship in which I’d have to engage with the art that I was convinced was the source of all my troubles.
Little did I know however, this album was about to come into my life, and I do believe that it was a key glimpse of happiness that allowed me to (if not only momentarily) see that maybe my situation wasn’t the end of the world after all.
It could be argued that “Heaven or Las Vegas” sounds like a product of its time. I also feel like it’s something that you could play for someone in 2020 with no context, and they might believe you if you told them that this was a hot new band.
The album’s production is something that I hope will continue to come back into vogue every couple decades. It’s bold and lush, and it creates a physical sensation of warmth. At their best, the guitars shimmer unrepentantly, even though they know full-well that they’re condemned to DROWN in reverb. They’re accepting of their fate, as they understand it’s in the name service: the act of creating an impenetrable wall of sound within (or atop) which vocalist Elizabeth Fraser can perform her ethereal vocal gymnastics.
This is not a metal album, but if you told me that the band used Black Sabbath’s criminally under-rated, “A National Acrobat”, as their sonic template here, I’d believe you.
If my verbiage hasn’t made it obvious, the Cocteau Twins create a big sound. That said, it’s more delicate than Sabbath, mind you. There are no granite-slab riffs to be found here, but the scope is the same.
And, just as Sabbath had a once-in-a-generation talent at the microphone in form of Ozzy, The Cocteau Twins did as well.
I’m not sure if it ever got put into quotes, but I believe I once read that Prince said Ms. Fraser had, “the voice of God.” Considering the strength of that endorsement, it’s hard to quantify it as an understatement, but it is.
Ms. Fraser sings from somewhere that I’m not sure anyone but her knows about. She sings nonsense, and achingly beautiful lyrical poetry with equal gusto and ease, her voice alternately delicate and piercing.
And the scary thing is, she REALLY CAN sing like that too, as evidenced below, in a career-best concert performance.
The first time I heard, “Heaven or Las Vegas”, I was prepared for absolutely none of this. I was working at the internship mentioned above, assisting a well to-do cartoonist on the North side of Chicago. He’d very kindly given me this opportunity, and for a couple of weeks, he’d also been doing his damndest to put me onto the great music of the 80s that I’d previously shunned.
To be clear, up until this point, my philosophy with regards to music from that decade was that if it wasn’t Slayer, Metallica, King Crimson, or Iron Maiden, I had no interest because, “gross… synthesizers”, and, “I don’t care unless Robert Fripp is involved.”
(Note: Heaven or Las Vegas came out in 1990, but it was most certainly a culmination of a band whose sound fell fairly comfortably into a mold established in the last decade.)
Looking at the cover for the album, as I went to put it in the CD player, I recall thinking something to the effect of, “this is gonna be some weak-ass shit.”
Thankfully, I was wrong.
In the moment, “Cherry-Coloured Funk,” and, “Pitch the Baby,” struck me as just fine, with me even kind of digging the former, though I didn’t allow myself to show it. The song that followed however, “Iceblink Luck,” made my head turn, and I’m sure I stopped drawing for at least a moment trying to process what I was hearing.
There certain are songs that one hundred percent exude happiness (at least from a sonic standpoint) and “Iceblink Luck” is one of those songs. It’s the perfect piece of pop music for summer, probably best saved for a sunset bike ride, or, a leisurely car-ride with the windows down and no A/C.
It’s somewhat abstract to be sure, as you can’t necessarily make out what Ms. Fraser is singing, but that’s ok. The music itself is just too pretty for you to care, and at some point, her voice just becomes an instrument belting out a particularly pleasing set of notes that melts effortlessly into everything else.
This is a through-line throughout the band’s catalog. Sometimes Fraser sings nonsense, and sometimes, there are real words in the mix. As an aside, if you ever want to hear the greatest version of “Frosty the Snowman” put to record, look no further than their cover of the song.
In total, the album clocks in at just under 40 minutes, and you can’t help but feel happier having heard it.
That said, after first hearing it, I can’t remember if I allowed myself an outward display of my enthusiasm. I’m pretty sure I told my boss that I liked it, but I also have a feeling I didn’t express much more than that, because I still felt as though full-on happiness wasn’t something that I could necessarily embrace.
Thinking retrospectively, my thoughts couldn’t have been sillier. I was in love with what I’d heard, and I should have embraced that, fully.
Looking back, I think it’s safe to say that this album made me open my mind more. It made me a little less skeptical, and it showed me that there are few aural sensations more striking than blessed ocean-deep reverb, and “the voice of God.”
Ultimately, “Heaven or Las Vegas” is a personal reminder that even in our low moments, we can still know (and enjoy) that which is good.
In our sorrow, our fear, or our hopelessness, there’s also someone’s smiling, or someone who’s bringing something really beautiful into the world, probably in closer proximity to us than we know.
In these moments, it’s our responsibility to keep our eyes open, and welcome it when it rolls around.
Because even when we think things are lousy, we can enjoy a moment— we can enjoy a grace note.