A few years ago, I had a show on Radio Warwick called Mike’s Tapes, which was a bit like a themed weekly mixtape with yours truly providing somewhat rambling commentary between the songs. One time, my girlfriend and I did a show together on ‘Illness and Injury’, and we played a song by a band that was new to us at the time, the Cocteau Twins. The song was called ‘Sugar Hiccup’. It would turn out to be one of their best known hits – you may well have heard it before, even if you’re not particularly well versed in the band’s back catalogue. And yet, it’s a song that has special meaning for us now, a kind of personal anthem I suppose, based mostly on our mishearing the main line of the chorus: Sugar hiccup my Cheerioooooos!
Of course, no-one can really understand what Liz Fraser is singing most of the time. She’s infamous for it. It’s probably the first thing that springs to mind when you think Cocteau Twins: unintelligible lyrics. But I’m interested in how that particular mishearing has taken on a little life of its own for us. We sing it every time we hear the song, every time one of us has Cheerios for breakfast, every time one of us gets hiccups. ‘Sugar Hiccup’ is a great song regardless – dreamy, anthemic, with a lovely lift to the chorus – but I can’t imagine enjoying it as much without Cheerios in it. The actual line is ‘sugar hiccup or she reels’, which, to be honest, doesn’t make a lot more sense anyway. As for the rest of the song, it’s all a sugary haze. ‘Makes an egg top and tumble’, or something? Something about a swooning pig? I have no idea. I’m not going to look up any of the other lyrics. It kind of ruins the fun, doesn’t it?
Mishearings offer a chance to make a song your own. It’s not so different, I suppose, from singing Christmas carols when you’re six and switching up the lyrics: while shepherds washed their socks by night, etc. There’s a line in ‘Glass Candle Grenades’ which I hear as ‘the song in our heads is between us’. That may not be the real lyric, but it feels like an appropriate and rather lovely sentiment regardless: the way the song as it unfolds in our minds is a private thing, a thing separate from the song as publically performed, separate even from how the artist conceived of it. How the misheard lyric can become an inside joke, a quirk that makes a song yours, even part of the glue of a relationship.
Words in Liz Fraser’s mouth turn to dust and ashes. The whole of Head Over Heels is infused with a sense of blurriness, indistinctness. The ‘sun bursts’ and the ‘snow blinds’, dazzling us like Meursault on the beach. There’s a feverishness to ‘Five Ten Fiftyfold’ with its ‘wheezing and sneezing’ that reminds me of that fuzzy headache you sometimes get when you’re ill: the song stumbles around with a head-cold, coughing up phlegm. The title itself suggests quick multiplication, things spiralling out of control, like a sound put under a heavy delay, the repetitions smudging together. And of course, the music is the complement to this: drums dissolving in reverb, shimmering guitars. There’s a line in ‘In the Gold Dust Rush’ that I particularly like. It’s something like ‘your honey mouth has got me all fooled, girl’. Which, whether or not it’s right, is pretty lovely. But it sounds a little different each time she sings it. Sometimes it sounds like ‘runny mouth’. Sometimes like ‘fool’s gold’. It’s malleable and runny like honey. ‘In the gold dust rush I can only genuflect’, goes the next line. I’m pretty sure that’s accurate, but I haven’t the foggiest what it means. Even when you can make sense of the lines you struggle to make any sense of them.
This is part of the fundamental appeal of Cocteau Twins’s music, I think – the way the words seem to hover around the edges of meaning, dissolving in and out of it; the way words are smeared into sounds and sounds smeared into words. It’s not that they’re pure sound, as when you listen to a song in a language you don’t know. That is its own kind of pleasure, a way of hearing purely the sung voice, the musical meaning of the words divorced from their semantic content. Whereas here, in Lis Fraser’s voice, these two ways of meaning – semantic and musical – mingle and blur into each other.
Actually, I think this is how all song works. I’ve never been that into lyrics, but the odd line of a song will often catch me, leap out from the blur. The lyricists I like most play into this dreamy dissociativeness, this instinctive, loose sense of playing with language, not writing about something but about it, that is, around it.
Another song from our ‘Illness and Injury’ radio show was ‘Cough Coughing’ by Menomena, a song that ends in a coda of half-decipherable mutterings and murmurings. The cough is another interesting way of thinking around this idea of where words end and sounds begin. Aristotle didn’t have a lot of time for coughs: he made a distinction between ‘voice’ (something he says separates us from the animals) and mere ‘sounds’ made by the mouth, giving the example of a cough as something that is purely physical and has nothing to do with utterance or meaning. Yet Steven Connor argues that a cough is far from inexpressive, describing a ‘whole prosody of coughs, from the tussis nervosa of the timorous, to the wine waiter’s discreetly imperious “ahem”’, and the ability of actors like Michael Hordern to ‘draw harrumphing symphonies out of slow, growling trawls of the mucus membrane’. That word ‘ahem’ is a case in point – it’s both a word and not really a word at all, a word edging into the territory of being mere sound. Liz Fraser’s way of singing always feels like this to me – it still seems related to normal words and meanings, but it’s stretching elastically away from them too, dragging them through her strange pronunciations, teasing them apart into threads. That’s why I return to a song like ‘Sugar Hiccup’ so often – to see if I can tease any more meaning out of it.
Plus, it makes me really hungry for Cheerios.