For a band whose lyrics were famously difficult to make out most of the time, the Cocteau Twins left an indelible impact on the world of pop music.
The Scottish trio emerged in the 1980s as some of the most notable pioneers of dream pop, a subgenre of alternative rock defined by airy, sublime sonic textures. But it was their sixth album, Heaven or Las Vegas—which turns 30 today—that truly withstood the test of time, affirming the Cocteau Twins’ status as perhaps the most important dream pop act of all time.
Combining the ethereal, otherworldly nature of Kate Bush with Siouxsie and the Banshees’ gothic aura, Heaven or Las Vegas was written in a time of personal upheaval; bassist Simon Raymonde had just gotten married, while vocalist Elizabeth Fraser and her partner, guitarist Robin Guthrie, were expecting their first child together. Much to the worry of his bandmates, Guthrie’s cocaine habit had spiked during the making of the Cocteau Twins’ previous album, Blue Bell Knoll.
While Fraser and Raymonde hoped that fatherhood would curb Guthrie’s drug dependency after his daughter was born in 1989, the guitarist continued to rely heavily on substances during the recording of Heaven or Las Vegas. This sent Guthrie into a “deep paranoia,” paired with the grief of losing his father shortly after welcoming his daughter.
In spite of the circumstances surrounding the recording of Heaven or Las Vegas, the album bears a sense of escapism and peace. Of the rare intelligible lyrics on the album, one stands out in particular: “But is it heaven or Las Vegas?” Fraser wails on the title track, juxtaposing two places that really couldn’t be any more different from each other. Heaven is a place where, so long as your virtues are in order, you’re guaranteed to spend eternity. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is a hotbed of sin. The album similarly feels suspended between utopia and the burdens of reality and humanity.
Cocteau Twins – Heaven Or Las Vegas (Official Video)
For the entirety of its 38 minutes, Heaven or Las Vegas feels effervescent and ultra-saturated. The record never sounds aggressive, but few records in its lane have managed to sound so full and lavish, from the moody funk of “Pitch the Baby” to the sheer euphoria of “Iceblink Luck.” Fraser’s featherlight vocals sweep and swirl atop Guthrie’s trademark guitar jangle, with each track enveloped in a sort of psychedelic shimmer that leaves you transfixed in wonder.
What makes the album all the more impressive, though, is that much of what makes Cocteau Twins so singular is completely unintentional: Fraser has credited her slurred singing style to “laziness,” while Raymonde claims many of the unusual instrumental tones were created with guitars “by accident” rather than with synthesizers.
Heaven or Las Vegas was received well both critically and commercially upon its release, propelling the Cocteau Twins to mainstream status and bringing more widespread attention to their record label, 4AD. The Cocteau Twins would release two more albums—1993’s Four-Calendar Cafe and 1996’s Milk & Kisses—before disbanding in 1997, largely due to the separation of Fraser and Guthrie a couple of years prior.
Cocteau Twins – Iceblink Luck (Official Video)
While each member of the Cocteau Twins have embarked on solo endeavors post-breakup, Fraser has been the most silent. Her most notable works since the band’s breakup are “Teardrop,” her collaboration with trip-hop group Massive Attack (which would be used as the theme song to the medical drama House M.D.), and her debut solo single, “Moses.” In 1997, Guthrie and Raymonde founded their own record label, Bella Union, which is now run solely by Raymonde.
One of Bella Union’s most popular signees is Baltimore duo Beach House, who—like the Cocteau Twins—have amassed a large cult following from their reverb-heavy, atmospheric dream pop. “I find it really hard to go to a Beach House concert,” Raymonde told Under the Radar in 2014. “I see the way people look at Victoria [Legrand, Beach House’s singer]. It’s like I’m revisiting what it was like to see a sea of thousands of faces look at Elizabeth, just madly in love with her.”
Endless comparisons can be made between the Cocteau Twins and Beach House, and their impact is prevalent in other modern dream pop acts like M83 and Sigur Ros. But the Cocteau Twins’ legacy has touched some unexpected artists, too, making fans out of everyone from Radiohead to Mike Kinsella of emo legends American Football. In a 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Prince said that his favorite music to listen to was “stuff that [he couldn’t] do…like the Cocteau Twins.”
Even today’s Top 40 acts have borrowed elements from the Cocteau Twins. The Weeknd, who early in his career became known for his “haunted strip club” music, sampled the Cocteau Twins’ “Cherry-Coloured Funk” on his debut album, House of Balloons. A few months later, the Weeknd’s mixtape Thursday would contain a song called “Heaven or Las Vegas.”
The Weeknd – The Knowing (Official Video)
Heaven or Las Vegas’s title track has also, inevitably, made its way to TikTok, where fans have endearingly poked fun at Fraser’s indecipherable vocals.
evdog (@evangordon8) on TikTok
evdog (@evangordon8) on TikTok
Due to the strained relationships between the band members today, Cocteau Twins fans shouldn’t hold their breath in anticipation for a full reunion. But 30 years on, the impact of Heaven or Las Vegas has proven that the love of the Cocteau Twins’ music won’t die out any time soon.