Heaven or Las Vegas
Cocteau Twins
released 17 sep 1990
dream pop
written 23 nov 2023

Not having grown up in and around the decade of the 1990's is something that will forever affect the way I move in the world; the decade, its ethos, and every social and artistic movement that came from it will always carry just a hint of semi-nostalgic longing and simultaneous confusion. It has this fantastical but completely monotone air about it, a sort of wave of mystery in its own attitude of disillusionment with establishment culture pre-widespread internet, before cultural interests fractured into more individualistic bubbles. Yet even then, almost thirty-four years after the decade started, there is something undeniably timeless about Heaven or Las Vegas.

Despite my own lack of concrete knowledge about Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde, the three responsible for the vocals, guitar, and bass on this record respectively, their talents shine in a wonderfully apparent way across every single song here. It trades the darker, wintery aesthetics of their earliest releases for a truly ungodly level of gorgeous arrangements and buoyant, heavenly harmonies. It is an album constructed on a footing less focused on rigid absolutism, guided instead by watercolor and hazy paintings, the principle color of which being Fraser's voice. It muddies syllables and phrases, not for the sake of hiding any lack of artistic lyricism, but instead as a foil, forcing the foggy atmosphere to the foreground and making the inclusion of its verses less grounded and more freeing.

Every track has a freewheeling fervor to its shape, exemplified perfectly from the get-go with the album's opening Cherry-Coloured Funk, one that snaps immediately to action with exactly the sound that carries the record through the streaky cover art's setting. Every harmony hits upon something greater, a faded but unyielding image of a peculiar and earnest exploration; it is one of the shortest cuts present, but its message doesn't need any more space to make its point completely clear.

Pitch the Baby and Iceblink Luck follow, a pair that comes across as a dichotomy of sorts, the first waxing on the heart and the ascension that it mirrors acutely in its waving instrumental; the second being an explosive and iconic single that digs on a feeling of higher appreciation—and whether Elizabeth is singing "maraschino cherry coal (or coke)" or "match of Jerico", the song is beautiful all the same.

Fifty-fifty Clown might be the least vital to the structure of the record, but it still serves as a graceful and smooth transitionary moment between the two singles of the record, the second of which being the title track. The longing in its instrumental and lyrical connection is apparent, the "flowing, love, soul and light" and its "motions [not] in the shape that emotions are" being its most affectual moment, right as the track fades and explodes into that second single.

It is the perfect calling card of the entire record; within its first chord progression, all there is is the sense of intense wistfulness, a feeling of yearning so strong that it overpowers absolutely anything else. It is the perfect song, a complete portrait drenched and washed in the colors of the record's cover, never over-produced or grandiose simply for its sake. It is absolutely sincere, an ornate but authentically human feeling wrapped altogether into a single, five minute escapade; I am paralyzed with awe every single time I hear it.

And as the record flips to the second side, and the soft synths shine through of I Wear Your Ring, it feels as if something has altered, a life in the same place but with the sunrise and sunset of the day having changed something about you. It is the rainy day of the record while still being pit-a-pat, a reflection of sorts—and even if its significance is lessened by its parts' summation (for once on the record), it is still truly affecting.

Fotzepolitic as its follow-up, and Wolf in the Breast afterwards, is another pairing that works better than themselves on their own, to some extent; the first is drenched with shimmering guitarwork and quick poetic lines, a dreamy and starry landscape to follow-up its preceding piece, while the second is a more conventional, nearly laidback expression of listless bliss. They each serve two different purposes, each focused on some different aspect of the clearly loving nature of the album, but they hint towards two ends of the same string in its narrative; they are complete on their own, but they're each greater when they meet.

The final two tracks though, Road, River and Rail and Frou-frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires, are their own expressions in the same vein of the songs that closed out the first side. Rail's purpose feels like a getaway, this journey for its own sake; whether it is for connection or the result of its severing, the feeling is enveloping while the guitars traverse more and more harmonic highs. Fires, on the other hand, is the moment it all gets pulled tightest, when all the record's determination and purpose is set to pure ecstasy after its buildup. It is simple bliss, another ascent over anything else, the mirror side B closer to what side A offered.

There is only one minute point that takes away from the ties of the record, being its construction toppling over itself in a key moment, where its highs are sometimes affected by its hopping through and around the same styles and conventions. In a simpler way, it repeats itself just a tad with its consistent sound sometimes being a bit too much, enough at times that the early midsection feels more unaffecting than the scheme it sets up from the fifth track to close. Regardless, there's something terribly affecting about it altogether, with its fog of absolute brilliance in the singing and arrangements that completely takes over everything around you. It is itself a foil, confirming all of this posturing as simply getting in the way of the record's brilliance; it is a classic, a must-listen, and a staple in this ethereal brand of beautiful dream pop.

high 4 / 5
created by hand, by nat!

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