"The trouble is, if we spend half an afternoon making up this guitar part and we get to be really happy with it, then in two year's time when we want to play the song live we can't actually remember what we played because we only played it once. More traditional bands, they practise their songs every week and they know them inside out. We don't." — Robin Guthrie
"...But is it Heaven or Las Vegas?" Liz sings. Well, I suppose that depends upon your definition of Heaven. Is it bliss, or is it just a pretty façade with bright lights?
After a somewhat quiet release of Blue Bell Knoll in 1988, the Cocteau Twins again returned to their private lives. This time, however, much more was taking place: Robin and Liz gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Belle. Simon got married, and he and his wife had a son, Stanley. The band leased new studio space in Twickenham, just across the Thames from the tony suburb of Richmond in southwest London (formerly known as Pete Townsend's legendary Eel Pie Studios), and christened their new home September Sound—named so in honor of the month in which their children were born. Robin found himself in demand as a producer, working with such bands as Lush, Chapterhouse, The Veldt and Shellyan Orphan, and Liz made a guest vocal appearance on the song "Candleland" from ex-Echo and the Bunnymen singer Ian McCulloch.
Somehow during the midst of all this, they managed to make a record, and Heaven or Las Vegas was, subsequently, the Cocteau Twins' most successful body of work yet. Ask any Cocteau Twins fan which is their favorite album, and Heaven or Las Vegas will almost always be among the most likely responses. (And it was clearly a favorite of 4AD's Ivo, as four tracks—"Iceblink Luck," "Heaven or Las Vegas," "Fifty-Fifty Clown," and "Watchlar" were featured on the 2000 retrospective compilation, Stars and Topsoil.)
The initial offering—the electrifying single "Iceblink Luck"—was released in August, 1990, and received immediate praise and attention, including heavy mainstream and college radio rotation. The promotional video—even more professionally produced than those from Blue Bell Knoll—was also played regularly on MTV. As with Blue Bell Knoll, it was almost like listening to an entirely different band. "Iceblink Luck" is a tight song, with a lot of rhythm (almost the same drum beat as on "Carolyn's Fingers"), bright, sliding guitar hooks, and a new Liz, who not only looked different, but whose voice was now deeper and more "womanly," and who sounded as though she had something she wanted to say.
"I don't feel it's any deeper than usual," she explained in a 1990 interview with Alternative Press magazine. "I know I can't sing as many notes [as before]; I'm not sure I can get any deeper than I used to, but I know I can't get as high. It's definitely a hormone thing." [Alternative Press, 1990].
Lyrically, Liz's mysterious words were starting to emerge from their foggy obscurity: Many of the lyrics in "Iceblink Luck" approach "comprehensible," although the debate continues. Undoubtedly, though, the warmth and tenderness apparent in the vocal performance owes to Liz's newfound love of motherhood. In fact, many of the songs were recorded while she held her baby in her arms.
The b-sides to "Iceblink Luck"—"Mizake the Mizan" and "Watchlar"—are each uniquely different but are of the same slick sophistication as "Iceblink Luck." "Mizake the Mizan" is a tender ballad with delicately delayed guitar, and "Watchlar" is an early experiment with sampled keyboard loops, a technique Robin and Simon had begun to use more frequently since Blue Bell Knoll.
Releasing the single set the stage, and the release of Heaven or Las Vegas—aptly, in September—was a resounding success for the band. The album shot to the top of the Independent charts in the UK and the US, and remained there for several weeks. "Iceblink Luck" even managed to crack the UK's National Radio—a rare accomplishment.
Heaven or Las Vegas breaks away from many of the Cocteaus' previous songwriting styles, and the songs are, therefore, much more cohesive and traditional in the pop sense. "I think we've had it in the back of our mind that we wanted to play live again, so we thought we'd make some of the pieces more like songs we could play live," Robin explained. "We've never actually sat down and said 'let's make a record sound like this'." The accessibility of the music on Heaven or Las Vegas is likely what has made the album so appealing and popular.
The album's ten tracks are diverse, ranging from the hip-hop influences of "Pitch the Baby" (a funkier mix of which was released on a Mute Records/4AD compilation entitled "Red Tape") to the refined shimmer of "Iceblink Luck" and "Heaven or Las Vegas," the sing-song of "Fotzepolitic" and "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires," the lilting tenderness of ballads like "Wolf in the Breast" and "Fifty-Fifty Clown," muddled thoughtfulness in "Cherry-Coloured Funk," (which was remixed in 1995 for the EP Otherness) and the romantic moods of "I Wear Your Ring" and "Road, River, and Rail." Throughout the record, the band never lose touch with their textural skills, and continue to sculpt private realms of sight and sound—evoking warmth and brightness.
Even as Blue Bell Knoll was highly produced and heavily effected, Heaven or Las Vegas is a step in an even more technological direction. The band have always relied heavily upon effects and other technology to enhance their music, but Heaven or Las Vegas clearly makes more extensive use of those technologies than ever before. "I like it," replied Robin, in an interview in 1994, "I mean it's a distraction for me. You know, I used to use all the technology to fulfill my needs as a person. It was like, 'I have to get more stuff.' Until I felt OK. So I went out and got every fuckin' thing there is. All this motherfuckin' houseful of equipment. Things that most probably we didn't need..." [Mondo 2000, 1994]
The songs give impressions about motherhood and the realities and stresses of day-to-day life, love, and work. As stated previously, many of the lyrics appear to be far more audible than had been possible for many years, although Liz more often than not lapsed into her characteristic obscure mumblings and vocalizations. Nevertheless, a few phrases here and there give enough away to get a feel for what's happening:
"Everyone seems to notice; Everyone says you favor me; I only want to love you..." ("Pitch the Baby")
"I'm seeming to be glad a lot; I'm happy again, caught in time..." ("Iceblink Luck")
"Maybe then you will swear this is hardly personal..." ("Heaven or Las Vegas")
"My dreams are all more basic and must be addressed, they're a young girl's dreams..." ("Fotzepolitic")
"And I feel all of it...I've pretended I flew away...; I feel perpetual, true blue and real..." ("Wolf in the Breast")
"So unblemished and natural as mother's daughter, today she'll follow road, river and rail..." ("Road, River, and Rail")
Oddly, rather than release a second proper single, 4AD and Capitol instead released a promotional single for "Heaven or Las Vegas" later, featuring the album version of the song, an edited version, and a new song, "Dials." The edited version of "Heaven or Las Vegas" was used for the video, which, like the video for "Iceblink Luck," was brightly lit and very "Las Vegas." "Dials" is a quiet, Victorialand-esque piece, and was used as prelude music on the Heaven or Las Vegas Tour.
The tour, which was the band's most extensive and elaborate tour in their history, was a sold-out affair. Veteran Cocteau fans and newbies alike flocked to see the first live performances by the band in almost four years—and their first headlining US tour. "We [were] not really touring with the album; we're just touring 'cause," explained Simon. "I know, because the album's out, that sounds very unlikely, but it's true. Half-way through the record, we thought, 'Oh, we might want to play again soon.'" [Alternative Press, 1990]. The band were accompanied on their U.S. tour by Mazzy Star and, later, by The Veldt.
Reproducing the music of Cocteau Twins live and doing it well is no easy task. Whereas the band had for years relied upon a reel-to-reel backing tape machine to play everything but the guitar, bass and voice during live shows, they now had much more technology and money at their disposal. Robin explained, "The trouble is, if we spend half an afternoon making up this guitar part and we get to be really happy with it, then in two year's time when we want to play the song live we can't actually remember what we played because we only played it once. More traditional bands, they practise their songs every week and they know them inside out. We don't. We don't go into the rehearsal room and write songs and then record, we do everything in the recording studio. We start with a piece of tape and make it up from there, and at the end of the day we've got to turn it into something that sounds like a band playing in a rehearsal room. It's kind of backwards..."
Two new guitarists were brought on for the tour: Mitsuo Tate and Ben Blakeman. Multiple live guitars made it much easier to reproduce the multi-layered sounds so easily achieved in the studio. Drums and other percussion, however, were left to the machines, and the band wouldn't work with live drummers on tour until 1993/94.
Liz's voice was surprisingly different, as well. There weren't nearly as many effects on her voice as had been used in past shows, and she utilized a great deal of improvisation with many of the songs—almost always with impressive results. When asked about previous tours, Liz commented, "It was just impossible...but it can work the other way as well. It can be quite easy to memorise sometimes if it's not actually words." Robin added, "A lot of people think that Liz just opens her mouth and does it. But everything she sings is precisely worked out. In the studio she'll sing over and over again hundreds of times until she gets it right."
The shows themselves were well-orchestrated, with a shimmering stage backdrop and a multitude of lights all coordinated with the songs. The set lists were diverse—again, this was the first tour since 1986—and included not only selections from Heaven or Las Vegas, but various selections from previous material. The songs from Heaven or Las Vegas included everything but "Fotzepolitic," "Fifty-Fifty Clown," "Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires" and "Watchlar." All of these except "Wolf in the Breast," "Mizake the Mizan" and "I Wear Your Ring" reappeared in 1993/94 on the Four-Calendar Café Tour. Other songs included material from Blue Bell Knoll, and a variety of songs from earlier years.
The tour ended, quite appropriately, in Las Vegas. It was at this point that the band realised just how far from "heaven" they really were. The omen actually came as they were preparing to leave London to begin the tour, when the Cocteau Twins were informed that they had been released from their contract with 4AD and were free to leave their long-time record label. When asked about it, Simon explained, "I don't think Ivo feels any differently. He probably misses not being able to come down here and listen to the music. But I'm sure he doesn't miss us as people—we were just always arguing. You could say it was somebody's fault and that he was to blame or we were to blame. But we just kept getting further and further away from each other. What we wanted was not what he wanted for us. Therefore, every time a meeting would happen about what we might want to do, there would be this huge conflict." [Volume 5 Magazine, 1992].
Ivo himself commented separately: "It was because it wasn't enjoyable anymore. I felt particularly that Robin was extremely unhappy and I was...I felt like a hypocrite really, because that's not what we're doing this for. It's a shame, I wish it wasn't the case and I'm obviously sad that I lost them. I fucked up in a big way, but I'm certainly a lot happier now and I think they probably are too." [Volume 5 Magazine, 1992].
In addition to this, Robin's ongoing abuse of drugs and alcohol became more apparent, and the internal stress within the band that was so well hidden from the rest of the world nearly ended their career. Just as everyone was finally starting to pay attention, and the Cocteau Twins seemed to be at the height of their career, their personal lives hit rock bottom. In spite of the phenomenal success of Heaven or Las Vegas, the sold-out tour, and all the media attention, the Cocteau Twins just weren't happy. Years of personal conflicts and dysfunction had finally boiled to the surface, and things had to change.
It would be three full years before the world would hear any new material from the band, save for their recording of "Frosty the Snowman" in 1992 for the monthly music/CD magazine Volume. 4AD and Capitol also re-released the band's numerous EP's dating from 1982 to 1990—Lullabies, Peppermint Pig, Sunburst and Snowblind, The Spangle Maker, Aikea-Guinea, Tiny Dynamine, Echoes In A Shallow Bay, Love's Easy Tears, as well as the Iceblink Luck single—in the form of a CD Box Set. The Box Set also included a disc of previously rare or unreleased material: "Dials," Crushed, "The High-Monkey Monk" (a song recorded during this time but released exclusively on a promotional compilation tape), and an instrumental version of the Victorialand track "Oomingmak." An alternate mix of "Pitch the Baby," remained unreleased except for its sole appearance on a limited-edition promotional tape entitled, simply, "Red Tape."
Meanwhile, the band wrote and recorded new material, Robin cleaned up, and the whole band underwent various personal changes and therapies, the significance of which was clearly evident on their follow-up LP, Four-Calendar Café, where the Cocteau Twins brought heaven down to earth and took a new look at their lives and their music.