second round game
(1) sisters of mercy, “lucretia my reflection”
shuffled off
(8) this mortal coil, “kangaroo”
and will play in the sweet 16

Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 15.

Which song best pleases your black heart? (Vote by 9am AZ time 3/15)
Lucretia My Reflection

i hear your empire down: ander monson on “lucretia my reflection”

I have a lot of things I want to tell you about the Sisters of Mercy—a band that I’ve been preparing to write about my whole life, it feels like—but the most important thing is that their entry in March Vladness, “Lucretia My Reflection,” is as great a goth song as you’ll find. It’s released right at the ideal point in the band’s trajectory, midway (where most bands’ sweet spots are), where Andrew Eldritch is most full of his own ideas and ambition and before he loses touch with whatever once fueled him and wanders off into the wilderness, where he still is (arguably) today. “Lucretia” is dramatic, grand but not grandiose (actually it’s definitely also grandiose, but I love its grandiosity). Full but not overstuffed, filled with actual content, and fun as hell, “Lucretia” captivates. It rules. It makes a great argument for what Goth is/was capable of and what it still can mean, even decades later.
“Lucretia” sums up the perfect balance between what’s great about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole) and what some see as stupid about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole), which is the same thing: it’s the commitment (overcommitment?) to an idea, and a willingness to follow it as far as it’ll go, no matter how dumb others may believe you look or how bad you are at whistling “Black Planet” in the stairwell. Never mind how good that idea is: good is for chumps, for things that never get made. Is it a good idea to name your band after a Leonard Cohen song? To call yourself not just Andrew William Harvey Taylor but Andrew Eldritch? To name-check your own band in an early single (“Adrenochrome”)? To beef with the best iteration of your band just after dropping your first—and most excellent always—album, then to get pissed and kick everyone else out of the band except your drum machine, which you name not just Doctor Avalanche but Doktor Avalanche? To then troll those former bandmates in an epic fashion by releasing an album as the Sisterhood that you recorded over the weekend in order to stop them from legally performing as the Sisterhood and claim a record company’s bounty, and begin it by taunting them about the money you stopped them from getting, followed by “JIHAD!!!”? To inexplicably record a solo piano number about the sadness of 1959? To title your third album Vision Thing after a George H W Bush talking point and in so doing yoke your star inexorably to his, and what’s more to take this whole goth thing you’d basically solved in a BIG ROCK direction and try to out-Axl Axl Rose to the point where your guitarist in the “More” video even looks like Slash (but, let’s face it, does not quite have the chops, nor are you quite Axl enough to be Axl)? To collaborate with Jim Steinman (of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Meat Loaf fame) on a series of what can only be termed “rock operas”? To write a song called “Doctor Jeep”? To write another called “Detonation Boulevard”? To get in a for-the-ages pissing match with your record label (the same record label that you once so assiduously courted) that poisons your ability to ever release new music (which you claim you’ve written but will only release for millions of dollars, which you will certainly not receive after having outkicked the coverage and the shadow of your own fame)? To henceforth live like a lonely wizard in the empty forest of your own making?
No, these are probably not good ideas, but yet Eldritch had them, and did them, and pulled most of them off (I’m a particular fan of the Steinmanization of Eldritch, or the Eldritchization of Steinman, but that’s another essay that maybe you’ll get if this makes it through to the Sweet 16). As a result, the Sisters of Mercy end up being responsible for some of the most gloriously over-the-top songs in the most gloriously over-the-top genre, and damn if their whole discography, best summed up in “Lucretia,” doesn’t make me feel filled with so much darkness that I can run through a wall or blow up a star with it, and that’s why “Lucretia” ought to win this tournament if it doesn’t get nuked from orbit by the Cruxshadows, assuming it gets past the fantastic Ken Caldwell and This Mortal Coil, cruelly eliminated from March Sadness (I too still mourn that moment, KC).
And if Eldritch won’t accept the black crown at the end, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it to him anyway. We don’t give it to him for him; we give it to him for us, because of how this song makes us feel, because of the spell it casts, and what it does to us.
Maybe I just mean what “Lucretia” does to me: I’m not ashamed of it. It still ensorcels me, even 32 years later. It gives me confidence to use the word ensorcels in an essay, even.



Like many of us, I was not as goth then as I would like to be able to claim now. Oh I more than flirted with it: I had my net.goth t-shirts; I discussed the particulars of goth furiously on the BBS forums; I had a lot of tapes; I listened to them constantly; I even had my dad monogram my black Land’s End bag TGR (for The Grim Reaper, my kool hacker handle), and if he didn’t know what that meant, all the better; I lived too far away from anything remotely approaching a goth show to go to a goth show until the whole scene had gone and went (along with Eldritch’s acceptance of the moniker); and in the time before the internet and total availability I worked for it, my hard-won point of entry into darkness, and even if it was Vision Thing rather than the cooler Floodland and the even cooler First and Last and Always, not even to get into the hard early singles and EPs, I worked for it and I let it define me. I did some shit. I was some shit. I was a shit. I liked Eldritch a great deal: he was the shit and knew it.
What I want to know now is: what’s wrong with goth? I love my good goth feelings; I slip into them way too easily. So why do I have more anxiety about feeling them now? Why does it fill me with anxiety to betray my black heart to one of my students, let’s call him James, when he asks me what kind of music do I listen to really? I mean, you seem like a 69 Love Songs guy, he says, and that’s right on, but beyond that—before that—well, I say, goth, obviously, and he says, wait, what? I say, you know, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death. He’s never heard of any of these bands; his mouth makes a little O. I say what do you think that means? He thinks it means Hot Topic and I guess, whatever, maybe Linkin Park? Evanescence? He can’t picture me with eyeliner. And if I do harbor some love for Evanescence, even against my better judgment, I can still feel it rising in me, my purist fury, not that Sisters of Mercy were every particularly pure (see also Jim fucking Steinman). James, I want to say: I have a whole world to show you. Open up your Midwest heart. This essay is for you.


I discovered the Sisters in reverse order, beginning with Vision Thing (1990), then going back to Floodland (1987), and then to First and Last and Always (1985), with a brief detour into the Sisterhood’s hilarious and surprisingly good troll-gift Gift (also in this tournament). And listening to them this way they get more instrumentally interesting as, aside from Doktor Avalanche and Eldritch, we see Andreas Bruhn and Adam Pearson join and leave the band, and Patricia Morrison joins and leaves, and then Wayne Hussey and Ben Gunn and Craig Adams are there for a while, and then eventually even Doktor Avalanche leaves the band, and it’s just Eldritch and Gary Marx (also instrumental in Ghost Dance’s entry in this tournament), reportedly writing and recording songs because they wanted to hear themselves on the radio. (This is a pure origin story, and one that should speak to all of us.)
That the only continuity in the band is Eldritch aside from the programmable and non-royalty-check collecting Doktor Avalanche tells you almost all you need to know about what makes the Sisters of Mercy great: that they named the fucking drum machine, and that Eldritch then kicked everyone else out of the band except for Avalanche’s programmable ass is a testament to the power of Eldritch’s own self-belief (also to his sense of humor, which one imagines must be extremely wicked, dry, and deep).
But then Goth is about self-belief. You have to have some self-witchery in you to reveal yourself as so obviously other, to deviate from the norm as Goths do. That is, if you revealed yourself at all (plenty of us did so only in secret) aside from literary tournaments.
What redeems this self-belief is that Eldritch actually is a genius. Or maybe “was”: because he hasn’t released anything new in decades aside from occasional songs in live shows and website screeds and forum screeds and bitchy interviews and threats to drop a new album if Americans did something so stupid as to elect Trump president (to which I and many others respond: yo, we did our part; ACIDIC ALBUM PLEASE). Because of all of this it’s hard to really take the measure of where he’s at. But one thing’s clear to me: Dude had ideas. He had the ego to know he could pull them off, and the drive to do it. He knew what the sound would be like, and what the look would be like, and it was all driven by a desire to say something fucked about the fucked world he saw and felt. He was probably a total asshole to work with, much less to date, but as listeners we don’t have to do either.
Unlike a lot of goth lyrics that rely on familiar tropes, Eldritch is making arguments. He’s into Subject Matter, too: American politics, the cold war, “the prostitution of Europe by the Americans,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and the Great Depression, and Lucretia Borgia, and Russia Russia Russia, among other things (and you’ll note these subjects seem to have aged right back into relevance). He’s also obviously having a hell of a time dungeonmastering this adventure for himself and for us.

In fact I got so obsessed at one point with the SoM that as Dungeon Master for my group of friends I insisted on soundtracking whole adventures —

( The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh,  just for instance)

(The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, just for instance)

—with Floodland on repeat, particularly the moodier numbers like “Neverland” (particularly the superior full version), “Driven Like the Snow,” “Flood I,” “Flood II,” and “Torch.”
I have no clue know how this came off to my friends but they were my friends so they let me get away with it (and thanks for that, y’all, a couple decades on, and to reward you, YOU ENCOUNTER:



Ahhhh. Breathe. One more dungeon map before we move on, because even looking at it plunges me into darkness once again.

2019-03-13 22.04.03.jpg


I know what listening to the Sisters of Mercy has felt like (darkness + energy), and how it’s bent and sustained me, but listening to “Lucretia My Reflection” (and their whole discography, particularly Floodland) thirty-two years later, I can’t stop wondering:

Can listening to goth (which is a kind of being goth) —can listening to a song like “Lucretia My Reflection”—bring down or halt the progress of empire?

I have my doubts, because empire flourishes in spite of Goth, and in spite of the Sisters of Mercy, but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but…and yet, when I turn the song on now, and it cuts in just a tiny fraction off the beat, and there’s the bass and there’s the voice and something happens to me. It’s not the same thing that happened to me then, but it’s related, and it folds those two moments over each other. It’s a submerged path I’m following, a subterranean passage.
Goth songs are songs of dissent, of disconnection, of spectral self-involvement, of opting out from one culture and into another. Goth dance songs like “Lucretia” do something else: If they don’t quite get us to collective action, they can get us to collectivity, if only on the dance floor.
That is what Goth is: a summoning, an opting out, a turning inward, and a performing outward, out there with other bodies, moving. That summoning / that turning doesn’t have to be public, though it’s dramatic when it is (the eyeliner and the white face paint sure signifies something—something terrifying, a reminder of our own mortality and the long game of time, which as the Silver Jews remind us, only children play well). It can be a private opting out too that we do when we listen to a song, when we let ourselves get caught up in a song. In doing so we choose to live in another’s world, let it articulate emotions that we otherwise can’t or won’t or haven’t thought of yet until we hear it, and we let it hold us as long as it will.
This kind of submission remains rare.
Thank god we have access to it—and at the click of a button or a needle on a record!

Our lives flatten us, push down a little bit every day on who we used to be. We build ourselves by repetition, by performing and re-performing one of the many roles we play. But when I get caught unawares and hear a song like “Lucretia,” something old and yawning, something outside of rationality opens in me.  
Lucretia and these other songs are songs of opting out of big chunks of mainstream culture, or at least feeling like we are. At the extreme end of things, a good (goth) song casts a spell so powerful that it can take a person over. It can possess you, even if it just summons you (who never dances) for the first time to the floor (even if it’s just your own) and gives you that moment of abandon, free among others, present or imagined.
We fear and covet and revere these spells and those who cast them because they are powerful. It is easy to make fun of those we do not understand, and even easier to mock those we do. These spellcasters push beyond the rational, the sensible, the predictable. We persecute them when we can.

So when Eldritch sings that he hears your empire down, I imagine he means to tell you that he witnesses your empire crashing down. He’s singing to you from the ruins, but in listening and singing back, we’re singing to us from the ruins (as many in this tournament have noted, the notes on general ruination that goth offers continue to age well as we descend further into environmental and political and human rights nightmares, and as the circumstances of “Lucretia My Reflection” do not seem to have changed all that much, except for the worse).
But I like to think, and every time I listen to this song I become more convinced, if just for the 4 minutes and 20 seconds on the 7” version or the 9 minutes and 51 seconds on the 12” / CD version, that it casts a spell so powerful as to suspend time. It hears your empire down.
While we’re in the bubble of it “Lucretia My Reflection” actually halts the progress of empire—on me at least it does, or maybe I just think it does (there is no way to know for sure). I mean that hearing the song itself is a bewitching, and that hearing takes me somewhere outside of empire, and not just that but that hearing is contra to empire.
What empire wants is for you—for me—to produce and to reproduce, and to not pay too much attention to the roar of the big machines.
To open up a hole in empire’s desires, to point to the machinery, to reveal the spell you are—we all are—under, well, you need a powerful spell to break that other spell. “Lucretia” isn’t the only one, but it’s a big one, and it’s good enough for me. It embiggens me when I listen to it, when it operates on me as it does. That’s because it pairs pretty complex (at least by rock song standards) lyrics with an all-time-great bass line, a heck of a rhythmic strut, Eldritch’s roar of a voice, and even Doktor Avalanche does its part (overly so on the later remastered versions that overemphasize the drums) to get us on the floor. And once we’re on the floor (and maybe we haven’t ever even been on the floor before) we find ourselves dancing there to the fall of empire, and I think that weakens empire, or the empire we’ve consumed by a nonzero amount.
And if Eldritch looks the part, and the witchy Patricia Morrison, ostensibly the bassist, does, all the better. Half the experience the Sisters offer is visual anyway, and the video sure delivers. I love the brief intercuts of the machinery that visually track Avalanche’s digital snare. I love the empty buildings and then Eldritch gesticulating in a sweatshop and swinging what looks like a long thin pipe or maybe an extendable majorette’s baton like the savior he means to be. He doesn’t interact with the workers of the factory: they’re here to illustrate (which maybe isn’t great by 2019 standards but you can’t have everything all of the time). It’s all mood, and I’m its mode. Either it’s awesome or it sucks, and I’m all in for awesome.
Could Eldritch be doing more to dismantle the machinery of empire—maybe that same machinery that prints his tour merch cheaply? Sure. And could this song push a little harder against cultural norms (a la Christian Death or even “Exterminating Angel”)? Definitely. But it knows its limitations too: “We got the empire, now as then / we don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection” (itself, I want to note, a reflection: oh Eldritch, you tricky mistress). We can acknowledge the contradictions we’re dancing to and still enjoy the dance and all the electricity we generate doing it and be changed a tiny bit.
“Lucretia” also just kicks ass. It’s propulsive. Collective, even, how it pulls us with it. The bigness of the song and its lack of anxiety about its bigness makes it easier for more of us to get carried away by it, if we’re willing, and whether we wore black then and painted our faces or if we just listened to it in secret, or shared it with a select few, that’s fine too. You’re welcome here, Eldritch says, gesticulating, as long as you don’t want royalties.
And listening to it now in 2019, I want to do all these things. I’m old enough to know that one should take the invitation when it’s offered. So I’m gonna hit the floor. You can too. Sing it with me now: Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me.



Ander Monson is a member of the Official March Vladness Selection Committee. He would like to note that he waited incredulously as at least 20 Vladness contributors chose to snap up songs other than “Lucretia My Reflection” before his draft # came up and he would have been a fool to have passed it up and in fact he could not do it which is how we ended up here.


I still dream of that night in the club, surrounded by skeletons.
It was 80s night at the Drink in Grand Rapids, mid-winter. I was wearing an ill-fitting vintage sweater and velcro shoes—not a deviation from my usual attire at the time. Mostly I was exhausted with my own ennui and other ill-fitting trappings of undergraduate student life. But I’d made a few friends in my program and agreed to meet them downtown.
What is 80s night, 30 years removed? Revivalist celebration? Imitation culture? I suppose these themed events still happen: Some combination of nostalgia and commercialization drag the decades kicking and screaming through time as they grow more quaint with each passing day.
But in general, you know how this goes: The DJ sprays fog and spins stuff like “Thriller” and “Dancing with Myself” while Max Headroom mouths something on TV. Libations abound. A select few dance, and a majority of others peer on in fascination. Fashion’s sad anachronisms shake loose the cobwebs. Last call. “Purple Rain.” Head home. But something with more gravitas happened that night.
It was that sweet spot, around 11:30 p.m., when everyone suddenly shows up and the bartender is the most interesting person in the room. The DJ becomes more thoughtful, or the alcohol gives that impression. Dance moves loosen, emboldened. The air wafts with cheap perfume and cheaper gin.
I was swept up into the mist of the fog machine, pumping hard now, overtaken by a fervor that expanded the dance floor across the club. It was Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” Everything connected at once: The pulse of the kick drum, the swelling synth, that plucky guitar riff. Receiving the lyric, “words are meaningless and forgettable” amid dozens of freaks reciting it in unison was like a Saturday night sermon. By then, my friends had vanished into the strobe somewhere and I was alone in this buzzing crowd.
I know this sounds unusual, but two minutes into the song, when the solo started, I witnessed a physical transformation. All of the leg warmers and Members Only jackets seemed to fade. The slick hair. The hoop earrings and Swatch watches. The on-point blue jeans. Even the spikes and studded accessories creeping along the perimeter: All of it faded and transmogrified as the people who wore them—their bones began to glow. I rubbed my eyes, bewitched. Was this right? Their skeletal frames flickered into view and juddered wildly in X-ray blue light.
How odd their bodies seemed now, decontextualized, beholden to ivory stalks of marrow and sinew bobbing in space! But there they were, ghouls of the night tapping away in rhythm, empty eye sockets staring out in space. The song’s spell soon expired, and while my visions didn’t persist, the truth remained: With each trembling breath, a skeleton awaits. The world is presently under our direct and immediate influence, and it will subsume our vessels. 


The name “This Mortal Coil” sounds pretty goth because is does indeed stem from the ultimate gothic tragedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet. As for the phrase itself, it is recited to no one in particular during Hamlet’s soliloquy—the “to be, or not to be” speech—in which he clutches a human skull (or, as in the new 360-degree, abbreviated version made for VR, wallows fully clothed in a bathtub):

To die, to sleep, / To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub, / For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.

The juxtaposition of a young man with a skull is an enduring image and one that aligns with my understanding of goth as a frame of mind. Goth, I’d like to suggest, is the acute awareness of one’s own mortality and the associated sentiments and expressions that follow.
For another take, Oxford English Dictionary [1] made a draft addition in 1993 for “Goth” relative to music culture:

  1. A style of rock music, and the youth culture associated with this, deriving originally from punk, and characterized by the dramatically stark appearance of its performers and followers, reminiscent of the protagonists of (esp. cinematic) gothic fantasy, and by mystical or apocalyptic lyrics.

  2. A performer or fan of this music, or anyone who adopts a similar appearance, typically through the use of dark eye make-up and pale skin colouring, dark clothes, and bulky metallic jewellery.


Some quick facts about This Mortal Coil (hereafter TMC):

  • It was a rotating cast of collaborating, UK-based musicians, rather than a band.

  • It starred well-known artists from Cocteau Twins, Modern English, Pixies, and more.

  • The project was led by Ivo-Watts Russell, founder of independent record label 4AD.

  • They did not perform live; this was strictly a studio-based project.

  • They published mostly obscure cover songs (a few exceptions were original compositions).

  • Three studio albums were released: It'll End in Tears (1984), Filigree & Shadow  (1986), and Blood (1991).

  • A rendition of Tim Buckley's “Song to the Siren” was the first This Mortal Coil release in 1983 and featured members of Cocteau Twins.

Here’s why you should explore the TMC discography more in depth:
The TMC aesthetic is stripped down and ethereal, yet full of vigor. These are barren, vulnerable tracks. Instrumentally, it’s stark—a constant exercise in restraint. We hear vocal, strings, and keys, primarily. Synths add texture and, on rare occasions, a beat defines the groove. What shines almost everywhere are the incredibly talented vocalists recruited for the job. “The human voice is the most important instrument to me,” said Watts-Russell in 1993[2]. Pairing high technique with style, the intimacy of the vocals can be shocking in a visceral way, as though the singers occupy the room with you.
A fair number of hooks can be heard in the lead melodies, but pop structures emerge as quickly as they are crushed in pursuit of the next experiment. And that’s the value of TMC as a whole, I’d argue: The willingness to take considerable risk and creative liberty with source material, while maintaining shared agreement to a particular, minimal aesthetic.
There’s more reading to be done between the lines. I’m still discovering snippets of song ideas and little melodic flourishes after years of listening as they reveal themselves in the interstitials and segues between songs. Samples stitched together illustrate a multifaceted aural landscape: the still life of hushed sounds in the evening, an infant babbling, a dog barking in the distance, and a whip cracking (tell me something more goth). Elsewhere we hear phased piano solos and complex, multi-layered harmony that envelopes the ear.
Give them enough time and TMC albums will surprise you. Blood, especially, is an engrossing, sustained work of art in the sense that each song flows organically into the next. Devoting yourself to it is a big ask in 2019—an era of instantly-streaming singles and endless digital libraries. As a complete, start-to-finish experience, albums in general are simply not in vogue anymore. But let this one coax you in with the pleading eyes of its album art, molding you into its next victim.
TMC means more to other people, given its scope and breadth of musicianship. Notably, other rotating performers included Kim Deal (Pixies, The Breeders), as well as Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry (Dead Can Dance).


So, that’s the TMC project filtered through my lens, however biased. Where does “Kangaroo” fit?
The song for your consideration here does not feature the talented Elizabeth Fraser on vocals (for another TMC track with her pipes, indulge in “Another Day”). This is Cindytalk's Gordon Sharp singing, and, at least in the video, crossdressing. I cannot explicate this for you. It’s worth noting that Sharp is one of the few male vocalists on TMC recordings (Robbie Grey of Modern English being another). Elsewhere you’ll find (arguably superior) female vocal.
“Kanagaroo” was written by the late musician Alex Chilton (d. 2010) and first performed by Big Star. The Big Star original is an odd series of fits and starts, loose as can be. No getting around it. Just when you start to feel a semblance of flow, you get slapped in the face with a stray cowbell way higher than anything else in the mix. Still, without being a Big Star scholar, I recognize a visionary quality to their left-field experimentation. Lots of respect.
What’s so impressive, then, is not what TMC was able to extract from the Big Star version—but how much they were able to omit. I admire the creative decisions required to narrow the scope to just a few, key elements, like a strong bass line that carries the rhythm throughout. In an interview Watts-Russell said, “these were songs that I was really, really fond of and it was dangerous to cover them as a result because we could have ruined them.”[3]
Lyrically, what can we do with the last, inexplicable stanza but marvel? Please contact me at any hour of the night if you have a working theory: “Like Saint Joan / Doing a cool jerk / Oh, I want you / Like a kangaroo.“


Being an undergrad is a good time to discover TMC. The whole landscape is just gothic malaise. I’m half kidding. But mine were fairly dark days, and it was a fitting soundtrack.
During one of my early creative writing final exams, the class dragged in to take our seats, wondering what poetic terms we might be quizzed on—what were double dactyls again? After the instructor fumbled with some AV equipment, it set in that we’d be watching grainy, live concert footage. A Joy Division performance. And why not? We’d studied imagist poets and formal convention and metered verse all semester. Now it was time to learn life lessons. Why not discuss Ian Curtis’ convulsions—how his epilepsy might have been mistaken for perverse dancing? “Tragic,” the instructor said, exasperated by the apparent lack of student interest. It was April 2005 and sunny. Curtis hanged himself prior to embarking on a U.S. tour in 1980. I admit, I was delighted by this exam.
Earlier that term, I got some feedback that my prose was a bit stiff: “a little too 19th century.” Well, what can you expect? I was repeatedly plumbing the catacombs of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” I even had a pocketable Dover Thrift edition for quick hits of goth glory.
By the time I heard “Song to the Siren” and “Kangaroo” I was falling pretty deep into solipsism—and their sound only coaxed me further. My entry point, probably like most, was Cocteau Twins. I became enamored by multiple bands hailing from what my late father referred to as the Scottish “homeland” (DNA test pending), including The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Incidentally, Fraser’s lyrical-vocal combinations are astounding specimens for a creative writing major to examine. They are rich with mellifluous, multisyllabic phrases—sometimes composed of unintelligible words, but often simply sounds—blanketed in northern Scottish dialect and veiled in introvertedness. Deciphering meaning is often beside the point—Cocteau Twins stay on the cusp of curiosity, creating space for listeners to fill the gaps. 


In 2016, I raged against how TMC didn’t go further in the inaugural tournament, March Sadness. In competition was “Song to the Siren,” a cover of Tim Buckley’s song, which made it to the Sweet 16, but lost out to Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees,” a respectable opponent at least.
Interestingly, the “winner” of that bracket was Jeff Buckley for his song “Hallelujah.” That was Tim’s son. Look them up: Both died tragically young but occupied a similar place as troubled crooners with successful careers. Jeff Buckley also did a sloppy, live rendition of “Kangaroo” that is more akin to Big Star’s rock-and-roll original. It gets very lame at the end as the band seemingly improvises with a bonkers riff Jeff dreamt up. And, unfortunately, his shirt is unbuttoned all the way during the whole clip. In short, don’t watch. I mention it because I suspect he was continuing the musical tradition, knowing TMC helped to boost his father’s posthumous sales in the mid-80s for “Song to the Siren” and hoped to have the same effect for TMC / Big Star.
Intertwining things further: Elizabeth Fraser went on record in a 2003 BBC documentary [4] to describe an “intense, personal relationship” with Jeff Buckley in the mid-90s, and an unfinished duet of theirs later emerged, to Fraser’s chagrin. This whole scene apparently got very comfortable.
As the March Sadness writers reflected on their picks and should-been winners, I also said TMC’s “Song to the Siren” will be somehow etched into my gravestone, a remark I still endorse (albeit they would be Buckley’s lyrics). I may also consider ways to incorporate some kind of multimedia experience—say, a hologram of a dark figure rotating on a platform in the fog. That’s Robin Guthrie, by the way, the Cocteau Twins guitarist who has gone on to have an accomplished solo career in songwriting and production. Of his sparse guitar work in that best-known TMC song, Watts-Russell described how it was intended to serve as a guide for Fraser’s vocal line as they entertained an acapella rendition: “He wasn’t remotely interested or enthusiastic about doing it, and to me that speaks to his genius, the fact that he could come up with something as subtle and beautiful as that when he wasn’t bothered at all (Laughs). He was literally leaning up against the wall and yawning.”[5]

[1] "Goth, n.". OED Online. December 2018. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 10, 2019).






Kenneth Caldwell is eyes wide into the night, illuminated in electric blue. He assembled a selection of goth-inspired songs in case you would like to have visions of skeletons at your next outing.

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