Blue Bell Knoll – Cocteau Twins (1988)

Blue Bell Knoll album cover
Blue Bell Knoll album cover

RECOMMENDIf you were like me and can remember a time when buying expensive exports was a bittersweet experience, the event of the Cocteau Twins signing a US record distribution deal was a financial godsend.

I had taken an odd weekend handyman job for a wealthy family that owned a chain of department stores around the time I first heard Blue Bell Knoll. While sweeping patios and driveways, I had learned to associate this album with servitude. The beauty and otherworldly elegance of Elizabeth Fraser singing  gave the odd jobs I did a certain dignity.

I remember being thrilled that I was able to get the CD for $12. The Cocteau Twins had released at least four proper LPs before that, all only available as expensive 4AD imports. So when the band’s fifth album Blue Bell Knoll was released on Capitol records, it meant that the heavenly sounds of Scotland’s most innovative band would finally be more accessible to cash strapped fans like myself.

Besides being a financial windfall for young patio sweepers, Blue Bell Knoll was also something of a milestone for the Cocteau Twins. The event of Capitol records broader distribution meant that more people were exposed to the band via normal promotional channels like mainstream radio.

With the release of Blue Bell Knoll, the band had adopted a more metallic sound. The somewhat cold sounding string elements were more defined and the songs were structured more tightly – as if the band had anticipated exposure on American radio and figured we Yanks needed our melodies to be deliberate. One thing had not changed: Elizabeth Frazier’s warm voice (still sung in some undefinable language), was as beautiful as ever.

This broader scope did nothing to diminish the band’s original musical formula. While not as dramatic in scope as the epic ambience of Treasure or Love’s Easy Tears, Blue Bell Knoll had its moments of pure Cocteadom. Mysterious vocals and twin guitars still defined a unique sound that had by the late ’80s had more than its share of imitators.

‘Carolyn’s Fingers’ was as close as it gets as a breakout song, becoming the first Cocteau Twins track to breakout of the college radio cage of their earlier material. In typical Cocteau Twins style, much of Blue Bell Knoll was mid tempo in nature with a layered production that sounds different with each careful re-listen.

Blue Bell Knoll would be the beginning of expanded US success for a band that had done well beyond the reach of the charts (thanks to expensive and profitable imports). US record label backing also opened the Twins up to larger scale US tours.

It was a time of great change for the band as the pressure of touring placed new demands on their sound. In my first Cocteau Twins concert experience, me and about 7,000 other fans were treated to a laviously produced light show that resembled the swirly backgrounds of videos from Love’s Easy Tears.

The impressive visual atmospherics softened the blow of seeing the band perform with tape loop machines while its three members strummed or sang in front of clouds of colored light. If any band could pull off such a performance, the Cocteau Twins could, as visuals were as big a part of their persona as sound.

The cold steely sound of Blue Bell Knoll seemed just right for those autumn days of my senior year in college. I no longer sweep patios, but I go back to this album more than most from that time.

Blue Bell Knoll a marked transition from earlier ambient sounding material. While not my favorite Cocteau Twins album, it was progress for a band trying to expand their reach while keeping their innovative trademark sound intact.

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