Elizabeth Fraser has a voice that launched reams of purple prose. Critics in her 1980s/90s heyday marvelled that the Cocteau Twins singer was “both ur-mother and universal child”, “as delicate as fine crystal”, “the voice of God”. She was lauded for her ability to “make grown men cry” as though that were the very summit of emotional devastation. The fact that it doesn’t take much to make a grown man cry – a winning goal, Toy Story 3, chopping onions – was conveniently overlooked.
Unsurprisingly Fraser found all this hyperbole oppressive. The Cocteau Twins were one of the key British indie bands of their era, the dreamy flipside to The Smiths, but after they split up in 1998 their vocalist more or less retired from the stage. There was the odd collaboration and the occasional solo recording, but otherwise Fraser kept her “ineffably fluid”, “uninflected celeste” of a voice under wraps. Grown men had one less reason to be tearful.
Until now that is. Fraser has been lured out of reclusion to play this year’s Meltdown festival, whose line-up has been assembled by the owner of another much-praised voice, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. He asked Fraser to appear; she agreed; thus Monday night saw the 48-year-old walking nervously on stage to perform a selection of Cocteau Twins songs and unreleased solo tracks with a backing band. It was the first of two shows.
Her comeback is a coup for Meltdown – though initially it was hard to appreciate the purpose of the coup. Fraser opened with an ambient new song “Bushey”, based on pulsing rhythms and twinkling synthesiser. Her voice was indistinct, a high note lost in the music. In the past her vocals aspired towards pure musicality, singing lyrics in a made-up language, but this was the wrong sort of unintelligibility – a sound mix that seemed designed to make her inaudible.
Another new song “Pirate Home” impressed with bluesy guitar and marimba-style percussion, but the vocal fogginess persisted. It wasn’t until a heckler shouted out, “Can’t hear you,” that the problem was solved, and the show came to life. The unreleased “Blue Song” was an entrancing combination of cinematic mood music and high vocals, reminiscent of Portishead. Ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett joined her for an acoustic number, Fraser (who grew up in a Scottish industrial town) interestingly recasting herself as an inheritor of 1970s folk and prog-rock, an indie Kate Bush.
There were fewer Cocteau Twins songs than fans may have wanted, but those she played were atmospheric, with the hazy circular motions of “Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops” a highlight. The concentration on new material also had a useful corrective effect: it portrayed her as a singer in the here and now, not the celestial voice of universal truths.