A very good friend and I went to Chamonix for a Summer holiday in August 1991. Neither of us were to know that our lives were to dramatically change over the next few months as we were both about to meet our future wives within a few months of the holiday ending. It was a great holiday. We stayed in a mobile home of the brother of one of my work colleagues. Chamonix is a beautiful place. One of the trips we took was a cable car to the Aiguille du Midi which is 12000 feet high and is one of the Mont Blanc summits. From there, we took the Vallee Blanche cable car to Points Helbronner and from there to Entreves in Italy. The view looking down onto the Vallee Blanche made me think I was on another planet. One of the most remarkable days of my life.
On another day we took a cable car up to the top of another mountain. I can’t remember where we went but we decided to walk back down which took about 2 hours. The following day, I regretted this decision as my calves had stiffened up so much I could barely walk. For some reason, my friend decided to march down ahead and I spent the time admiring the scenery and listening to “Blood” by This Mortal Coil on my Walkman. I had played the album quite a few times prior to the holiday but I can clearly remember, half way down the mountain, listening to “Baby Ray Baby” the tenth track on the album and exclaiming out loud “It’s a story! The album tells a story! I get it!”
Now, I wish I’d written down what the story was because I can’t quite remember. I think it might be something to do with getting together with someone (“Mr Somewhere”), trying to have children (“Nature’s Way”, “I Come And Stand At Every Door”, “Baby Ray Baby”), splitting up (“Late Night”) and a final resolution which may or may not find the protagonist dead or alive (“Til I Gain Control Again”, “I Am The Cosmos”). Or to put it another way, I don’t really know if there is a story and if there is, I’m not sure what it is.
This Mortal Coil is a name given to a “collective” put together by Ivo Watts-Russell who was the founder of a record label called 4AD. The collective put out three records: “It’ll End In Tears” (1984), “Filigree And Shadow” (1986) and “Blood” (1991). Possibly the best known song performed by This Mortal Coil is “Song To The Siren”. This is one of my favourite songs of all time and there are three great versions. The first is by the writer of the song, Tim Buckley, which appears on “Starsailor”, the second best record of all time. Tim Buckley’s vocals are sublime. The second version is performed by Liz Frazer and Robin Guthrie of The Cocteau Twins on “It’ll End In Tears” and the only word to describe this is ethereal. The third version is by Half Man Half Biscuit which is brilliantly sacrilegious; they performed it on a Radio 1 session for Andy Kershaw.
“Blood” features performances by members of many 4AD artists: Caroline Crawley (from Shelleyan Orphan), Alison Limerick (who had a Top 10 hit in 1996 with “Where Love Lives”), Kim Deal (Pixies), Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses), Louise Rutkowski (The Hope Blister), Tim Freeman (Frazier Chorus), Heidi Berry and Dominic Appleton (Breathless).
The album features nine instrumentals written by Ivo Watts-Russell and John Fryer, sometimes with Martin McCarrick (Siouxsie And The Banshees). There are also covers of songs written by Peter Milton Walsh of The Apartments (“Mr Somewhere”) Gene Clark of The Byrds with Jesse Ed Davis (“With Tomorrow”), Chris Bell of Big Star (“You And Your Sister” and “I Am The Cosmos”), Randy California of Spirit (“Nature’s Way”), Peter Nooten of Clan of Xymox (“Several Times”), Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd (“Late Night”), the wonderful Mary Margaret O’Hara (“Help Me Lift You Up”) and Rodney Crowell (‘Til I Gain Control Again”).
That’s the background. What does it sound like? There are lots of female lead vocals. There are lots of dreamy, other worldly, eerie instrumentals. Lots of synthesisers. Nothing very pacy apart from an explosion towards the end of “Bitter”. There are some babies crying “Daddy Daddy Daddy” on “Baby Ray Baby”. The standout tracks are “Mr Somewhere”, “I Come And Stand At Every Door”, “Help Me Lift You Up”, “‘Til I Gain Control Again” and “I Am The Cosmos” .
Here’s what I hear when I hear “‘Til I Gain Control Again”. It starts with a quiet treated ghostly piano. Heidi Berry starts singing “Just like the sun over the mountain top/You know I’ll always come again/You know I love the sun, my morning sun/That sunlight dancing on your skin”. She is far away on another planet, mournfully regretting her past. “I’ve never done so wrong as to tell you lies” she confesses as the piano playing becomes more ornate. “There is nothing I could hide from you/You see me better than I can”. This is someone she knows well, maybe too well, but she needs him now, more than ever, despite her past behaviour. The strings are starting to enhance the desperation now. “Along the roads that lie before me now/There are some turns where I will slip/I only hope that you can hold me now/’til I can gain control again.” The song seems to describe a person on the verge of giving up but hoping that the person she is singing to can be a rock for her.
This leads straight into an eight minute song called “Dreams Are Like Water” which feature these rather unsettling lyrics: “When you were a child unhappiness took the place of dreams/Dreams are like water, colourless and dangerous/Without the strength to love, way beyond fear/You could care less if you could care at all.” This carries dreamily on until it is rudely interrupted by “Every night I tell myself I Am The Cosmos/I am the wind/That don’t bring you back again/Just when I was starting to feel okay/You’re on the phone/I never wanna be alone/Never wanna be alone/I hate to have to take you home/Wanted so much to say no.” This feels more like a “song” than a “piece”, with a chorus and strong guitar work from Jim Williams (about whom I know nothing) and the contrast with the rest of the record is stark. The song ends by repeating the contradictory lines “I know I’d like to see you again/I never want to see you again.” The last song on the record is “(Nothing But) Blood” which is back to a funereal pace, unearthly instrumentation, indecipherable lyrics and a sudden ending.
Listening to this record again, I’m completely blown away by it’s beauty, imagination and other worldliness. Music for the Vallee Blanche.