On Heaven or Las Vegas, Cocteau Twins became the band they had always threatened to be
Original release date: 17 September 1990
On 4 July 2021, Cocteau Twins fans nervously held their breath. Miley Cyrus was opening the Resorts World Casino in Las Vegas and, to complement her punk-disco repertoire, the mulleted singer decided to cover the title track of the Scottish band’s seminal 1990 album, Heaven or Las Vegas.
That fans were twitchy was no slight on Miley. How could anyone cover a song as majestically nebulous as Heaven or Las Vegas, a piece of music that resists capture or codification, in something as crudely flesh-and-blood as a casino? And how could you even hope to reenact the ethereal swoop of Elizabeth Fraser’s vocals, Cocteau Twins’ angelic rebrand of a front woman?
Heaven or Las Vegas isn’t just a song for Cocteau Twins fans; it’s the shining peak of their career. Fans may disagree on their favourite individual eras of their art, as they evolved from the gothic rock of debut Garlands to the velveteen dream pop of Milk & Kisses. But everyone loves Heaven or Las Vegas, the one undisputed classic in the Cocteau Twins’ oeuvre and the eternal entry point for new listeners. Heaven or Las Vegas, the album, was the moment Cocteau Twins became the band they had always threatened to be. It’s the record with the strongest pop songs and the most sparkling instrumentation. Both the happiest and the saddest work in their canon, Heaven or Las Vegas was when it all seemed to work for them, not so much a step-up from the preceding Blue Bell Knoll as a vast leap into the ether. The artistic success of Heaven or Las Vegas is often linked to Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie – lead guitarist and Fraser’s then-romantic partner – becoming parents during the recording of the album. Fraser once said that being pregnant had given her clarity and confidence, which was lost when the baby was born and the couple were plunged into parenthood. A number of songs on Heaven or Las Vegas directly address Fraser’s experience of motherhood, in particular Pitch the Baby, a moment of ecstatic optimism.
But mixed with this hope is the creeping influence of the darker side of life, as Guthrie’s cocaine use became increasingly problematic. This gave Heaven or Las Vegas an intriguing – and perhaps unique – push and pull in the band’s catalogue, as anxiety stalked contentment and joy looked nervously down on depression. Bassist Simon Raymonde wrote brooding album closer Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires the day after his father died, while opener Cherry-Coloured Funk feels like a blues song on a gloomy day in heaven, the mournful melody and moody chords of the verses bursting into a chorus of glorious joy, like a plane breaking through storm clouds to reveal blue skies.
This may sound like over-exuberant nonsense. But it’s hard not to get hyperbolic when faced with a work as perfectly different as Heaven or Las Vegas, a record that takes the base elements of rock music – guitar, drums, bass and voice – and alchemises them into something entirely foreign. You can trace the influences of Siouxsie and the Banshees and Kate Bush on the Cocteau Twins, particularly in their early years. But by 1990 nobody really sounded like them, their music instantly recognisable in its immaculate shimmer, as if washed clean of dirt to take on more emotion.
Cocteau Twins eventually split in 1997, with personal animosity so far preventing a reunion. But the band’s reputation has only grown since, becoming a touchstone for a kind of rapturous mysticism, to the point that The Weeknd sampled Cherry-Coloured Funk on his 2011 mixtape House of Balloons and no one batted an eyelid. Even Prince tried to emulate the Cocteau Twins, recording Tictactoe for his 2014 album Plectrumelectrum after a night partying to the band’s music.
In the end, Miley did OK at Resorts World, her cover a roughed-up take on Heaven or Las Vegas that did no harm to either reputation. That she didn’t get close to the sky-scraping original is no disgrace, either: some 24 years after they split, Cocteau Twins remain out on their own, a towering singularity in rock music, neither heaven nor Las Vegas, but wonderfully elsewhere.