Heaven or Las Vegas revisted by Jeffrey Thiessen
Along with Wax Trax!, no other label of the eighties represented such a unique and distinct sound and approach to music, as 4AD did. 4AD probably even represented a higher concentration of those two elements than Wax Trax!- how many other labels do you know that has its flagship group not only write a song about the label head, but name it after him (of course I'm referring to Cocteau Twins' 'Ivo')? People gravitated intensely and passionately to 4AD for many reasons, but one of which is the family aesthetic they created, or at the very least did everything they could to cradle that perception to their fans.
Ostensibly, all roads ran through label patriarch Ivo Watts-Russell, even culminating in him being a quasi-integral member of one of their most important acts on the label, This Mortal Coil. Time has proven this to be a bit of a cheap myth he did nothing to discredit, especially evident to all those who read the fantastic chronicling of the label, Facing the Other Way: The Story of 4AD. The wire scheme for this sculpture is too large, too overreaching to chalk it up to the vision of one man, even if that's how it can seem at times. Having said that, Watts-Russell surely was much more hands-on and less interested in the business side of things as most label heads, and when reading Facing the Other Way, there truly is sort of twisted family dynamic that does emerge between him and the aforementioned Cocteau Twins. Whether they like it or not, the push-pull dynamic between him and the group, existing in various forms and levels of conflict that ranged from the petty ("Ivo gets too much attention", guitarist and primary songwriter Robin Guthrie whines about fairly frequently) to the standard artist/label squabbles (marketing, financial dust-ups) led directly to their most triumphant and seminal album, Heaven or Las Vegas.
Heaven or Las Vegas was the last truly great record the Twins put out, and it came at the tail end of a wildly impressive stretch of releases that continues to hold up shockingly well in today's indie label climate. That's not exactly true actually; it exists brilliantly alongside today's music, sort of crouching adjacent to it. Never far off, but certainly not in lockstep with anything we're familiar with today. Notoriously surly, it's hard to speculate if Cocteau's near-flawless reputation these days has given Guthrie the peace he never seemed to achieve while making music in the group. He famously ripped Treasure, which struck many fans as more than a little strange, considering it's almost certainly their most beloved album and still widely considered a classic in every sense of the term. As for Heaven or Las Vegas, it's the only one of their albums that is spared from his wrath:"We like it better than all our last records. That's why we continue to make more – because if we made the perfect record we'd sit back and say, 'We can't do any better than that.' We think all our other ones are fucking crap. I'm slightly proud of a couple of tracks on a couple of them, but essentially I'm really embarrassed about what we've done in the past."It was difficult to really figure out where all this hostility was coming from, and before long, it becomes pretty clear this is just how Robin worked, how he extracted the best from himself. Much like Kobe Bryant who was constantly searching for disrespect in any form whatsoever, no matter how ridiculous to outside observers, to drive him, push him into places his will to win wouldn't take him on its own, Guthrie needed someone (or something, anything) to push against. Singer Elizabeth Fraser and bassist Simon Raymonde weren't considered fair game for the most part, so he holed up and railed wildly against the label, financial compensation, Watts-Russell, anything he could to generate the insatiable need to prove them all wrong and lesser mortals. And when those didn't work, cocaine turned him into a rage-filled pinwheel that drove him into studio delirium and brilliance.
This is hardly healthy behaviour to encourage in a musician, but what the hell, it produced some truly amazing work. But it really shouldn't have worked by the time Heaven or Las Vegas rolled around. The coke addiction was hitting Guthrie in some really bad ways, his marriage to Fraser had crumbled, and relations with 4AD were at an all-time low. Yet in complete Rumors style, Heaven or Las Vegas emerges from the chaos and somehow creates one of the most beautiful albums ever released.
It's truly rare to see a such an accomplished band stumble into the purest crystallization of their sound so late in their career, especially since we sort of thought Treasure or Blue Bell Knoll could've easily represented this development. It's also remarkable how close Heaven or Las Vegas was to their two weakest albums, they certainly left all their blood and sweat on the floor before those final releases. Four-Calendar Cafe, followed by their last gasp studio album Milk & Kisses, showcase almost none of the ethereal (what, you thought I was gonna do an entire piece on Cocteau Twins without using that word?) beauty captured so effortlessly on Heaven or Las Vegas. In fact, if you're new to Cocteau Twins and this piece is your jumping off point to their work, you would be wise to ignore those two releases completely (but be sure sure to seek out the wonderful Cocteau/Harold Budd collaboration, The Moon and the Melodies).
Heaven or Las Vegas seems to burst out of the speakers. Every track is infused with an energy we hadn't really seen on any of their previous albums. Blue Bell Knoll and Victorialand are both classic albums, but if there is a criticism to be levelled against them, it's that Guthrie allows the music to breathe too much, the listener is permitted to wonder around aimlessly at times. Cocteau Twins have always excelled with space in their music, but at times, especially on Blue Bell, the soundscapes can be a little too sparse, too barren. Guthrie really isn't fucking around on Heaven - there is not a single wasted second that someone like Watts-Russell could point to as a potential shortcoming. Heaven or Las Vegas has too much to say to allow any drift, and a lot of that has to do with Fraser. Being a new mother, she finally sounds at peace as she sings with the music as opposed to over the layers of shimmering guitar effects on previous releases. That's not a criticism of those records, but it's ignorant and borderline contrarian to assume her more restrained, confident approach on Heaven isn't a huge reason this album works so shockingly well.
And as purposeful as Heaven is from start to finish, each track still finds a way to evolve against itself, grow into something different than what it began as. Take the title cut as an example: the first half really does exist as a prototypical Twins tune with swirling guitars seemingly arriving from the cosmos, before Guthrie adds in a muscular guitar solo that honestly wouldn't sound out of place on one of the tougher moments found on an early Echo and the Bunnymen record. It's a complex arrangement by the end, but a sly development that totally works within the context of the song. Other ones don't wait until a climactic crescendo and just keep building on itself from the opening seconds and those are just as satisfying, albeit in different more immediate ways.
"Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" almost starts out as a stark piano ballad, before seamlessly mutating into a one of the rarest of Cocteau sounds - Fraser singing in rapid-fire form, almost urgently but not even shifting around her pitch a great deal. Heaven or Las Vegas is full of surprises like this, and even when the arrangements themselves don't catch us off guard, we don't really care all that much, as each track represents its own incredibly unique slab of beauty that in some cases, proves to be almost a rave-up of all their best work in the past. And I know I've brought up the title track already, but it's really a primo example of this, and stands among their strongest songs cut to record.
Even if you ignore the semi-quantum fundamental leap in songwriting found here, Heaven or Las Vegas really is a Cocteau hit parade. "Cherry-Coloured Funk," "Iceblink Luck" (featured recently on the overwhelmingly crappy Cameron Crowe series Roadies), "Fotzepolitic" and album closer "Frou Frou" are all considered to be indisputable highlights in the group's discography. Add in the title track, and you have half the album serving as some of their best and most memorable work. The other five of course aren't quite on that level, but really aren't far off and all have many strengths those five classics don't necessarily have. At the very least, they can be seen as extremely successful bridge tracks that really can't be criticized on any significant discernible level, both in terms of sequencing and outright effectiveness. It's truly perfect from start to finish, not a song deserves to be skipped here.
Heaven or Las Vegas has rightfully been hailed as a classic since it's release, even if more people these days think of acts like TV on the Radio or The National when it comes to 4AD. I think that has more to do with recency bias than any perceived flaw time has exposed in their music or impact - the Cocteau Twins' legacy is one of the few that has nobody even really dares to try and pulverize, like their music, it exists in a different world where our fears are channelled into smiles, and our smiles all make sense to anybody else who loves Cocteau Twins' music.
In time, we may come to view the '80's on 4AD as the Indian Summer of quantifiable beauty in popular music, as it didn't strive to occupy any other spot besides the most lovely, peaceful corners of our imagination. It's true much of the label roster was a little intellectually loose… their detractors will always point to an over-emphasis on the theatrical, an almost militant worship of the raw emotional beauty music is capable of, an obsession of Watts-Russell that 'infected' every corner of the music, and even stretching to the cover art. Of course that's the very thing its adherents found so appealing during this era. 4AD had quite the run in the eighties, and ended with the Cocteau Twins shooting the moon in 1990 with Heaven and Las Vegas. It's almost fitting Watts-Russell threw them off the label very quickly after it came out, a record he called "one of the best releases on the label." He knew it couldn't get any better.
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