"Making this record was a very joyous experience." — Robin Guthrie
"A friend was kind of comforting me on the phone and they were just being so sweet, really," explained Liz, when asked how the title of the Cocteau Twins' eighth LP got its name. "They had empathy for what I was going through, and they said, 'I wish I could get the poison out of you. I wish I could just take it out of you and replace it with milk and kisses.' And I just thought that was really brilliant! It's beautiful, isn't it? I kept hearing it and feeling so good about it, it seemed right to use it." [Alternative Press, 1996]
In early 1996, what ultimately proved to be the last new Cocteau Twins record, Milk & Kisses was released. It was received rapturously by fans and some in the press, calling it a return to their roots and a renewal of their 1980s-era creativity. Others criticised the record as being too predictable, and signalled—perhaps prophetically—the end of the Cocteaus' run. With the melange of sounds emanating from September Sound since Four-Calendar Café, it was hard to guess whether the new album would be acoustic, techno-influenced, or more of the same Café fare. As it turned out, it was something of everything, but references to their roots were not entirely inappropriate: powerful guitar and bass lines, heavy percussion and mesmerizing, interlocking layers of guitar and voice were all present, with Liz's lyrics even sliding into unintelligible obscurity once again.
Most of the songs were written in a rented house in Brittany in the northwest of France (the home of Robin's new wife, Florence). Simon told Alternative Press in 1996, "The brilliant thing about this album is that it all happened so fast. Robin and I would write a song and then not have to wait around forever the muse to visit Liz."
"Making this record was a very joyous experience," Robin elaborated. "It only took two months to record, which for us is amazing. We'd always read articles about bands who spoke of the vibe of the band in the studio and we'd have no fucking idea what they were talking about. We thought it was bollocks, because that way of working was so alien to us. Simon used to come into the studio in the daytime to do his thing, then I would come in at night to do mine, and then Liz would come in when neither one of us was around. We were never in the studio at the same time. This time, we really were together much of the time." [Alternative Press, 1996]
When confronted with questions about their past music, and any similarities which might exist on Milk & Kisses, the band members' responses showed evidence of having reflected on the subject. In a 1996 interview with Ozone, Robin explained, "I think we add to our collection of things we can use in our music. You don't throw everythigng away. Liz has got, like, a library of voices, vocal styles that she can use, that she's had from the day she started singing. And so now at any time she can switch into them. The same goes for the type of instrumentation that we want to use on the tracks, the sounds and things. they're always there to dip into. There's a song on this record ["Tishbite"] that's got a Hammond organ on it. That's the first time we've used one since Treasure. Someone mentioned this to us. It's like, 'Hey, you guys never change. Why have you changed?'"
Simon continued, "'Your music tends to all sound the same, don't you think?' and then, 'Why have you been changing?' He couldn't really make his own mind up."
"I don't mind plundering something I've done before," said Robin, "but if I did it before, it's because it was good."
"Or if you did it before," added Liz, "it was because it was comfortable."
"Something we didn't really appreciate before was that we could do anything and it would still be the Cocteau Twins," finished Simon. "We could probably do a record with an orchestra, where we did all the arrangements and Liz sang on it, and it would still sound like the Cocteau Twins. I'm not saying we would." [Ozone, 1996]
Milk & Kisses encompasses many trademark Cocteau sounds, in fact, while taking their songwriting in slightly different directions. The opening track, "Violaine," is as close to rock-n-roll as the Cocteau Twins have been, with a funky bassline and walls of guitar distortion to accompany Liz singing in entirely unintelligible lyrics (which turned out to be largely English sung backwards, in an almost joking reference to previous concerns about 'hidden messages').
"Half-Gifts" and "Rilkean Heart," which had been stripped down to acoustic form on Twinlights appear in their considerably different (and longer) electric forms. Pop gems abound, as well, with "Tishbite," "Calfskin Smack" and "Ups" queueing up for heavy rotation, while tracks like "Eperdu," with its recorded ocean waves and liquid ambience (and even the title itself) reflect the French seaside where the album was written. "Treasure Hiding," shows the band returning to one of their best forms, building from a quiet, contemplative tension into an explosive second half à-la-"Donimo" (Treasure) or "Pur" (Four-Calendar Café).
The closing track, the breathtaking "Seekers Who Are Lovers," which had been remixed (along with "Violaine") on Otherness, turned out to be Robin's favorite, "Because it's just mega, because it's got lots of wishy guitar sounds on it; it's got a big atmosphere—it sounds like Ennio Morricone, at least to me it does. It sounds very dramatic and very Morricone. That backing vocal in the chorus is just like...it sends shivers down my spine, that does." [the i, 1996]
The album's first single and video, "Tishbite," was upbeat, shimmering and full of exaltation, communicating a sensuality—a sultry, liquid quality that would be found throughout Milk & Kisses. Once again, Liz's lyrics were available to the listener, albeit somewhat more obscure than on other recent recordings, and in a move not taken since 1983's Head Over Heels, some lyrics actually were printed on the record sleeves:
Is it like a dream?
In an interview with Raygun in 1996, Liz reflected more on her lyrics and the role they have played in her life. "I was only so well informed about what I was going through before I started therapy. I would write lyrics and present them to people. People would then want to know more and I had nothing for them. I still don't. Everyone's got all there is, but it's much clearer. I'm more comfortable with myself and with the process. The process is very honest, from my point of view. I don't think the album is all about loss and sorrow. I think we express the whole emotional spectrum, the whole fucking package! I didn't edit anything. If I was singing, then I'd sing. If it was lyrics, then it was lyrics I'd written down in a journal, a journal that I've kept for a long, long time."
When asked of said journal's contents, she replied, "Everything. Basically, I'm having a go at myself for what's been going on in the day—I guess because I think I have so much improving to do! I'm having a good old moan, but generally, about the day-to-day business of living. I mean, when I first went into therapy, I was having to spend so much time talking to the therapist about what had happened to me since the last time I'd seen him that I didn't touch on all the stuff that had set me up for the kind of life that I was living. Certainly, Robin and my relationship is not the only thing I get angry about. Robin and I still have a lot to get over. We fucking hurt each other tremendously...and Simon." [Raygun, 1996]
In keeping with what had become a trend in the record industry, "Tishbite" was released on two separate singles with exclusive b-sides and in various formats (as usual, Cocteau Twins b-sides proved to be nearly as good as the album tracks, and in some cases even better). While the single did not prove to be a chart success, it was nevertheless in regular radio rotation as the record company and the band went into promotional overdrive. A number of television and live radio performances in the UK were followed by an extensive European and North American tour in late spring and early summer.
While even the band members could not have known that the Milk & Kisses tour was to be the Cocteau Twins' last, it was by nearly all accounts the most electrified and ambitious series of performances of their long career. Once again the live band was comprised of two additional guitarists and a drummer, with a keyboard taking its place on stage for Simon to play when he was not on guitar or bass. Liz, in the past occasionally beset by stage fright or vocal problems, stunned audiences with performances that were at-once spontaneous and meticulously crafted.
Pushing themselves even further, the band performed not only songs from the album, but also songs from their early years, such as "Wax and Wane" from Garlands, "Sugar Hiccup" from Head Over Heels and "Pandora" and "Aloysius" from Treasure—and even "Song to the Siren" a few times—alongside selections from their previous three LPs. Material from Twinlights was integrated into the setlists, as well, with "Rilkean Heart" and "Golden-Vein" being performed acoustically. In a nod to Otherness, Mark Clifford accompanied the band on the road, remixing three tracks live: "Wax and Wane," "Pitch the Baby" (from Heaven or Las Vegas) and "Aloysius" into a mesmerizing ambient groove. Showcasing their newfound motivation and inspiration, they even debuted a new song, "Touch Upon Touch" (which had no title at all at the time). Shows were punctuated by an impassioned and slightly extended version of "Blue Bell Knoll," signalling to everyone that the Cocteau Twins were neither just a "studio band," nor did they lack the ability to rock when they wanted to.
Following the tour, the second single, "Violaine," was released as two separate discs with b-sides that included two new tracks, and a remix of the track "Circling Girl," along with "Alice," a song that had originally been recorded for and released on the soundtrack to the motion picture "Stealing Beauty." "Touch Upon Touch," the richly sensual track that had debuted during the tour, was eventually released on two separate compilation albums—Volume 17 and Splashed With Many a Speck—and was the last Cocteau Twins song ever officially released.
Following the end of the Milk & Kisses promotional run, they were released from their contract with Mercury Records. At the time, the band denied any rumors of a Cocteau Twins split-up. "We just left our label recently," explained Simon to Volume magazine, "and the NME rang up yesterday and said, 'We've heard that you left Mercury and that you've split up.' You know they want you to say 'Yes' because it will give them a story to write and then there would be some quotes from other people saying how influential we'd been. What a shame—then the obituaries appear. It's all a load of bollocks. We've left our label. Hardly a big story.
"We're obviously better off getting on with our own thing and releasing records when we please and not fitting into this big marketing machinery. People put two and two together and make five—because, well, they've been around for a long while, they can't possibly enjoy it, they must be doing it for the money. If I was, I wouldn't be in music. I don't say this in a glib way, but when we are inside those four walls, making music, it's the most exciting thing that anyone can do in their life. It really is—it makes all the other stuff tolerable." [Volume 17, 1997]
The Cocteaus had established their own independent record label, Bella Union, while continuing to work as a group and run September Sound as a commercial recording studio. However, while recording, in 1998, what was to have been their last album, the Cocteau Twins finally called it quits.
Simon offered this to Mojo Magazine in 1999: "It was difficult, because [Robin and Liz] had been together for a long time and split up in 1993, just after Four-Calendar Café came out, and a month after that we were on tour. It was hard work for everybody. They became pretty close friends for a while, but then they both started having other partners, which created tension. Perhaps we were all scared of not having the band anymore, but we were keen to find a way of making it work. We knew we had to get off Mercury. I'd been championing the idea of having our own label when we left 4AD. So we agreed on that, and that we'd make another record. We were all quite excited about that. Maybe because it was going to be the last one, we could really go out there, on a limb, and do something different. So we started recording and were very close to the end. We'd done 15 or 16 tracks and Liz had sung on about seven. I still don't know the reason she did it, but she called up one day and said she couldn't carry on. We were about two weeks away from finishing the vocals. That was it. It was a bit of a blow, because I thought we were going out on a strong note...bits of it were quite wonderful...with really different influences. But I really can't play it for people [and] I shouldn't tease about it. Another myth to perpetuate the legend of the Cocteau Twins (laughs)."
Alas, much to the shock and dismay of thousands of fans the world over, the Cocteau Twins were gone. Not, however, forgotten. The next few years would see—almost miraculously—two new retrospective releases, a series of album reissues and flourishing solo careers.