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Emotion over meaning: the enigmatic lyrics of Cocteau Twins in the languages of glossolalia

Cocteau Twins
Cocteau Twins

Having first appeared in religious practices, the term glossolalia referred to the ability of a believer to subconsciously use an unfamiliar or non-existing language—the skill listed in nine gifts of extraordinary power given by the Holy Spirit.

In literature, glossolalia refers to combinations of sounds or words that have lost their meaning, but at the same time, form a structure similar to a full-fledged language. This approach to language in creative writing was used by such masters as Lewis CarrollJames Joyce, and Velimir Khlebnikov.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, glossolalia was already establishing its influence in popular culture, popping up in different areas of arts, with its most known example being the scat singing technique. Originated in jazz, the scat gave the opportunity for vocalists to improvise a melody with nonsense syllables or without words at all.

One of the most outstanding uses of an imaginary language in pop music belongs to Cocteau Twins—a new wave band from Scotland considered by many to be the founders of the dream pop genre. The lead vocalist Elizabeth Fraser's unique and otherworldly voice, often described by fans as angelic, is one of the defining factors for the band's idiosyncratic sound. Fraser also used a special method to create their abstract lyrics.

Robin Guthrie and Elizabeth Fraser:

In her search for the perfect text to satisfy the emotional side of music, Elizabeth Fraser embarked on a relentless search for suitable words in foreign books and random sources, writing them out in columns and, as a result, having "loads of these lists around the house.”

When asked about the meaning behind the lyrics, she stated there was none:

"They're not proper… It’s like the Cockney rhyming slang or something. Writers like John Lennon. Writers that just kind of made up their own portmanteaux that caught on and people still use them. They don't mean anything, though, that's the thing. You know all the transcendent sounds. It's all sound all the way through."

Listen to Ivo by Cocteau Twins:

Elizabeth used her approach to creating lyrics for all songs except for a few informative texts written for the last album in which she described a complex relationship with her husband Robin Guthrie, who was also the guitarist and composer of the band. 

However, the singer herself considers the experience of writing meaningful lyrics unsuccessful, adhering to the opinion that Cocteau Twins should have been disbanded before the last album, but it was impossible due to a rather strict contract.

For 20 years after the dissolution of Cocteau Twins in the late 1990s, Elizabeth Fraser avoided a full musical career but provided guest vocals for different projects and groups including three songs for the iconic Mezzanine by Massive Attack.

One of the most beautiful songs of this collaboration with lyrics by Fraser—inspired by the works of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard—was the famous Teardrop. It went on to become the opening theme of the American medical drama series [H]ouse which attracted a huge audience to the group outside the genre.

Watch the official video for Teardrop:

In the 2000s, Elizabeth once again professed her passion for abstract lyrics by singing the Lament for Gandalf in the Elvish language to the music by Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. She also collaborated as a vocalist with Peter Gabriel and French composer Yann Tiersen and even released a solo single Moses in 2009, her only one to the date.

Watch Lament for Gandalf by Howard Shore featuring Elizabeth Fraser:

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