"We're running our own studio as well as everything else. That's something a band doesn't usually do." — Liz Fraser
In old British legend, if you can hear the sound of the bluebell's knoll, then death is upon you. One journalist, in reviewing Blue Bell Knoll, went so far as to say, "When you die, and then open your eyes, if there isn't music something like this playing in the distance, you're probably on your way to the wrong place." [Heaven or Las Vegas Press Release, 1990].
Following Love's Easy Tears and 1987's "Crushed," the Cocteau Twins were silent for the longest period since 1982. In October of 1988, everyone finally heard what they had been doing, and Blue Bell Knoll sounded almost as if it were a new band altogether. Journalists at the time said as much:
In 1987, the Cocteaus finished equipping their first real studio in Acton, West London (the predecessor to September Sound), and had finally signed to a major international label, Capitol Records. Detractors attribute the apparent differences to a sort of "selling out" by the band to the dictates of the corporate music world. The band were quick to set the record straight on this issue:
"We're running our own studio as well as everything else," explained Elizabeth. "That's something a band doesn't usually do."
"I don't think we'll have problems [with a major label]. I think we'll continue to do what we want," added Robin. "They'll find out what we're like. It seems like most people will do anything to sell their record. We won't. But at least we'll feel good about it."
Simon continued, "Whatever money we've made over the past few years we've just put straight back in to what we're doing." [All Quotes Reflex Magazine, 1988]
But the money provided by a major label doesn't hurt. Having finally set up their own studio, the band were able to make a record totally on their own terms, and it shows in Blue Bell Knoll. Furthermore, the promotional videos made for the singles were far and away an improvement over most of those previously funded by their independent label, giving sharper definition to the visual aspects of their music.
The difference in sound—and the band's most sophisticated production to-date—is immediately obvious as soon as the song "Blue Bell Knoll" begins the record. A delicate piano loop lays the foundation for a fluid melody that eventually breaks down into a mesmerizing whirlpool of guitars and drums.
Nearly every song on the album is a tour de force in sonic impressionism. Layer upon layer of guitar and bass, along with a new variety of instrumental sounds (marimba, xylophone, harpsichord, and various percussive sounds) create rich, dense tapestries that are shimmering, lulling, and exciting all at once. Liz continues to push her vocal envelope, and although she claims that the lyrics were simply portmanteaux of made-up and borrowed words sung with poor diction and bad grammar ("...the easiest, the easiest I've ever done to make a record..." [Mondo 2000, 1993]), one can hear thoughts, feelings and observations rising up through the mass of sound in what sometimes sounds like clear sentences. One is often reminded of Treasure's "Pandora" and "Aloysius," or several of the songs from Victorialand.
Each song is a distinct experience: lazy, relaxed, ecstatic, and jumping, and, as always, the songs evoke disparate textures and images. "Carolyn's Fingers," the single, is one of the album's standout tracks, and was probably the inspiration for the sleeve. A subsequent single, "Cico Buff," was released later. "For Phoebe Still A Baby" is almost premonitory, as the soon-to-be-Mom Liz (daughter Lucy Belle was born in September, 1989—less than a year after Blue Bell Knoll was released) sings a warm lullaby to a baby girl. The band play with a little funk and a wah-wah pedal on "A Kissed Out Red Floatboat," and end the album perfectly with the almost melancholy "Ella Megalast Burls Forever," leaving the listener with a distinct feeling of closure.
In contrast and in retrospect, the band themselves naturally have a slightly more critical opinion of Blue Bell Knoll. Robin has criticised the density and richness of the songs for covering up a lack of songwriting skills and a knee-jerk desire to hide behind sophisticated technology and expensive effects. Elizabeth likewise has remarked that her vocal elusiveness and whimsy (the song titles alone on Blue Bell Knoll attest to this) grew from her own desire to hide behind obscurity and to mask her true feelings. Simon hasn't had much on record to say about Blue Bell Knoll, other than that he respects it as being the band's first real album.
It is ironic that, although this was the band's first major-label recording, there was almost no promotional support for the record following its release. Only a few interviews in scattered, low-profile magazines and two promotional videos ("Carolyn's Fingers" and "Cico Buff"). When asked about why they did not support Blue Bell Knoll by touring as they had previously done with all their other albums, Simon responded:
"We just weren't in the mood. I still think it stands out as a good album, but I don't think you need to promote everything you do. I suppose we've been lucky, in the respect that up till now our record sales haven't fallen off when we haven't toured or put singles out or done all that kind of thing. For some reason there are a certain amount of people that always buy our records. But that may not happen every time—you just never know." [Volume 5 Magazine, 1992].
Simon was right: Blue Bell Knoll went all the way to number 14 on the British National charts in only its first week of release.
Cocteau Twins made up for the lack of live performance support of Blue Bell Knoll with their subsequent tours, during which they performed six of the ten songs on the album: "Blue Bell Knoll" (every tour; a particularly charged rendition of "Blue Bell Knoll" was an encore performance during the 1996 Milk and Kisses Tour, in which a few extra bars and a lot more white noise were added at the end), "Carolyn's Fingers" (1993/94), "For Phoebe Still A Baby" (1993/94), "Cico Buff" (90/91 and 93/94), "A Kissed Out Red Floatboat" (1990/91), and "Ella Megalast Burls Forever" (every tour). They also taped a live performance of "Ella Megalast Burls Forever" in 1990 for the television programme SNUB TV.
The two singles, "Carolyn's Fingers" and "Cico Buff," were included in the 2000 4AD retrospective compilation, Stars and Topsoil. The entire LP itself was digitally remastered by Robin Guthrie and re-released by 4AD in 2003.
Different band? Perhaps...but the Cocteau Twins—almost more than any of their peers—have always followed a very organic and natural process of artistic growth and development. Blue Bell Knoll was only the beginning of a new phase in the life of their music, a phase that would take them from the the amorphous ambiguities of Blue Bell Knoll to the middle ground between Heaven or Las Vegas, and finally down to earth in Four-Calendar Café.