Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau brings to the IASPM-US site a series of essays on the topic “Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song.” During the month of May, we’ll explore what it is to sit just on the edge of reason in popular music.
I don’t know what the song “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” by Scottish post-punk band The Cocteau Twins is about. Layers upon layers of mist obscure its words. The song’s title is its most vivid feature, making me imagine tiny beads of moisture on a lawn or a windowpane. But even this phrase—“pearly-dewdrops’ drops”—is strange with its tongue-twisting alliteration and quirkily precise punctuation. Why are the first two words hyphenated? Does the repeated “drops” denote aqueous objects or their actions? Is the song about the drip-drop of dewdrops?
Perhaps this odd title refers to the atmospheric sound of the recording itself. Listening to “Pearly-Dewdrops” is a bit like walking through a cloud of infinitesimal droplets. Robin Guthrie bathes the initial simultaneous sounds of his guitar and Simon Raymonde’s bass in a mist of effects. Each “strike” of Guthrie’s synthesized percussion seems to create a splash, an aural nimbus around the generously spaced beats. His halting, descending arpeggio guitar lines splatter and dissipate in the reverberant recorded space. After this instrumental introduction, vocalist Liz Fraser enters as if from a distant fog. She’s clearly singing lyrics, but the recording’s hazy atmosphere and her imprecise enunciation render them virtually incomprehensible. During a swift ascending scalar passage, I’m pretty sure I can make out the title phrase. Unlike her fragile subject matter, Fraser’s vocals are powerful. She sings predominantly in the middle register of her formidable range, but briefly flips into the high register at the beginning of her second phrase. The single, sudden high pitch seems like an adolescent boy’s voice cracking—a chink in the armor of her otherwise forceful singing. Before Guthrie’s guitar solo interlude, she bursts forth with a short yodel, a vocal technique often executed through nonsense syllables. During the song’s “chorus,” two versions of Fraser sing in counterpoint—a more subdued voice in the lower register, and a more insistent pattering voice in the higher register. Fraser’s vocal delivery and Guthrie’s instrumental effects combine to obliterate clear lyrical meaning.
The song’s accompanying video appears to have been shot on a clammy autumn afternoon rather than a dewy spring morning. Dressed in dark overcoats, the three band members stroll aimlessly around the sanctuary and grounds of a stunning church. The reverberant interior space mirrors the constructed reverberations on the recording. Fraser sings as she strolls up the aisle in time with the echoing drumbeat. Lip-reading does little to help us make out the words. Throughout the video, the onscreen images fade between stained glass windows, waterfalls, and bare tree branches. The camera tilts and pans across the church’s stained glass windows, zooming in occasionally on particular icons. (A close-up of a fish represented in one of the windows confirms my watery impressions of the song.) The footage of foggy weather and cascading water add to “Pearly Dewdrops’” misty atmosphere, but the video offers few additional clues about its meaning.
The unintelligible lyrics and virtuosic delivery heard in “Pearly-Dewdrops” are hallmarks of the Cocteaus’ sound. Even if we could understand Fraser’s words, they might not make much sense. In interviews, she describes several techniques for thwarting denotative meaning and confessional self-expression in her writing, including choosing phrases at random from foreign language texts and spelling English words backwards. Deciphering Fraser’s lyrics and speculating on what they might mean is something of a cottage industry for her fans. Several have created websites devoted to Cocteau Twins lyric transcription, most of which are prefaced with thoughtful disclaimers about how these are only one listener’s impression, and how reading them might jeopardize the pleasure that comes with not knowing. On his website Cocteau Twins Lyrics Interpretations (http://cocteautwins.etherweave.com/), fan Michael Borum transcribes the opening text of “Pearly-Dewdrops’” as “Ruby suns and ruddy Cups of pearly-dewdrops’ drops.” On the Twitter feed “Cocteau Twins Lyrics,” https://twitter.com/CocteauTwinsLyr the same lines are transcribed as: “We’ll be sold when Roddy comes / comes for pearly dewdrop’s drops.” Borum’s transcription inspires me to wonder how a cup might be “ruddy,” as this is a quality I’ve always associated with human faces rather than inanimate objects. @CocteauTwinsLyr makes me wonder who this character “Roddy” is, and what we’ll be sold on when he arrives. As intriguing as it might be to invent and contemplate such scenarios, most fans ultimately entreat us to “just listen” to Fraser’s syllables as beautiful sounds, not try to decode them.
For their part, many rock critics breathe a collective sigh of relief that Fraser’s words aren’t comprehensible, perhaps fearing that their content is hopelessly nonsensical or too embarrassingly delicate for rock lyrics. Barney Hoskyns writes in an early review, “It’s probably a good thing, too, that we can’t hear Liz’s words . . . Better to think of this extraordinary voice as being just an exotic sort of instrument.” [1. “Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels (4AD).” NME, Fall 1983.] In an otherwise positive concert review, Jon Pareles wrote that understandable lyrics would make the Cocteau Twins’ music uncomfortably beautiful.
If the lyrics were clear and cloying, the songs would be unlistenable. But their ambiguity makes the music abstract and seductive; close enough to pop-song forms so that it doesn’t become meandering new-age music, it is music to bask in, drifting along with its rippling instruments and dreamy voice. [2. “Syllables and Music.” New York Times, November 15, 1990, sec. C.]
In other words, the Cocteaus’ music teeters perilously on the brink of New Age or of saccharine pop, but the nonsensical lyrics help it from going over the edge.
Fraser’s evasiveness prompts multiple (mis)understandings of the Cocteau Twins’ lyrics. Of course, all song lyrics are to some degree ambiguous, leaving room for listeners’ projections and interpretations. But the field of possible meanings is wider in the Cocteaus’ music. And misunderstanding is arguably more central to the pleasure we experience in this music. We bask in the potentiality of these lyrics, forming the syllables into our own words and phrases, most of which, like “ruddy cups,” would never have occurred to us. Fraser’s ambiguity opens us to bizarre and unconventional messages.
“Pearly-Dewdrops” was originally released on the 1984 EP The Spangle Maker. The blurred cover image, by turn-of-the-20th-Century American photographer Gertrude Käsebier, shows a woman peering into a cloudy glass orb. The sphere resembles a fortune teller’s crystal ball, in which we might glimpse some inaccessible part of ourselves. The woman on the record’s cover seems to symbolize its listener. Her pose toward the murky globe is like ours toward the Cocteaus’ atmospheric music. She regards an object whose ambiguity makes it rife with potential. Just as the crystal ball yields different visions to each viewer, each listener distinguishes her own message in the sonic mist.
Elizabeth Lindau is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Liz’s essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” appears in Benjamin Piekut, ed. Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies (University of Michigan Press, in press). This fall, she will join the faculty of Wesleyan University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.