Reviews / April 19, 2017
Object Name: It’ll End In Tears
Maker and Year: This Mortal Coil, 4AD Records, John Fryer and Ivo Watts-Russell (producers), 1984
Object Type: LP album
Description: (Michael Grasso, Richard McKenna, K.E. Roberts)
GRASSO: Reviewing this album was my suggestion, after a lot of back and forth about what the three of us could do to top our collective review of “Automatic Man.” We went through a lot of post-punk classics, but for me It’ll End In Tears (and on a larger scale, the entire 4AD record label/collective it represents) was the most interesting and diverse LP we considered. This Mortal Coil was a collaborative label-wide project, assembled by 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell as a way to bring back some classics of 1970s power pop and folk-rock to his label’s burgeoning young following of post-punks and nascent goths. Watts-Russell was a little older than the artists on 4AD (and their fans); he’d come of age during the late ’60s and 1970s. Having his label’s biggest names cover artists like Big Star and Tim Buckley was Watts-Russell’s way of preserving their memory and making sure they weren’t lost to time. By the way, most of this history is taken from Martin Aston’s impeccably researched and impeccably told Facing The Other Way: The Story of 4AD (2013), which I highly recommend.
ROBERTS: None of which I knew in the ’80s, of course. I was aware of 4AD because I was a big Bauhaus and Pixies (and, to a lesser extent, Cocteau Twins) fan, but This Mortal Coil didn’t really sink in at the time (much like Joy Division): what I remember of the album, and I’m listening to it now for the first time in over twenty years, is that it was a dark, heavy, melodic, theatrical, alien landscape, and it scared the shit out of me in a very understated way. My memory is justified, I think. Christ, the covers of “Kangaroo” and “Song to the Siren” are devastating.
MCKENNA: It makes sense that it would be released about a week after the BBC screened Barry Hines’s nuclear war drama Threads and ten days before the IRA’s bombing of the Brighton hotel that almost killed Margaret Thatcher. 1984 had turned out to be even more worrying than forecast, and, at times, It’ll End in Tears sounds like a baroque theological recontextualization of songs unearthed centuries after the culture that created them was wiped out. Kelly’s right, it’s a totally devastating record, all the way through, even after decades of listening to it. Liz Fraser’s voice and the strings on the cover of “Another Day” take Roy Harper’s (already pretty great) original and just launch its vignette of the pointless beauty and misery of human relationships into agonizing transcendence.
GRASSO: Like Kelly, I didn’t get into 4AD artists until the era of the Pixies, Throwing Muses, and The Breeders, all bands from my home region of New England. By the early ’90s, though, I had started to collect 4AD’s back catalog in the form of import CDs and CD singles. Each one seemed like a tiny treasure, their striking covers by in-house design collective 23 Envelope headed by designer Vaughan Oliver. The choices for the cover of this album are emblematic of 4AD’s overall aesthetic: murky, sepia-toned photography; neo-Pre-Raphaelite figures emerging from or floating in a void; and tasteful, understated typography. 4AD sold their visual image as much as their music, but the two were almost always complementary. In a nearly synesthetic way, the cover of It’ll End In Tears looks like the music sounds, and vice versa.
And speaking of the music! As I mentioned above, This Mortal Coil was a collective made up of 4AD’s hottest groups in 1983-4: primarily Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and Colourbox. None of my words could adequately express the devastating impact of “Song to the Siren”; it reveals new depths every time you hear it. While Liz Fraser’s entire career is consistently remarkable, I think most would have to agree that this is her high point. It’s interesting to hear Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard at this early point in her career. I’d argue her confidence and power isn’t quite at the levels of Dead Can Dance’s late ’80s recorded output, but the unearthly quaver in her contralto on side B’s “Waves Become Wings” and “Dreams Made Flesh” (the latter performed with her Dead Can Dance bandmate Brendan Perry) still sends a chill down my spine.
Possibly the most interesting track from a “visions-of-music-to-come” perspective is the instrumental “Fyt,” performed by Colourbox’s Martyn Young and Mark Cox of 4AD’s Rema-Rema and The Wolfgang Press. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Boards of Canada or Oneohtrix Point Never album today. It feels like a harbinger of IDM and much of ’90s chill-out in a lot of ways.
ROBERTS: The irony here is that Mike sold me on doing It’ll End In Tears by mentioning Howard Devoto. While I revere both Buzzcocks and Magazine, the man has no business singing “Holocaust,” another epic Alex Chilton-penned elegy from Big Star’s 3rd (1975), especially with Elizabeth Fraser and Gordon Sharp incarnating the album’s title with each vocalization. I agree with Mike that Lisa Gerrard isn’t quite there yet, but her arrangements are really lovely. I also want to point out Simon Raymonde’s evocative guitar and synth work on “Barramundi.” The song reminds me a lot of Pop by Tones on Tail, a brilliant album written by Daniel Ash (Bauhaus, Love and Rockets) that came out the same year. “Barramundi” and Pop make prominent use of Yamaha’s DX7, a digital synthesizer released in 1983 that was embraced by both mainstream and underground artists.
MCKENNA: Mike, I’ve got to disagree with you about “Song to the Siren” being Liz Fraser’s high point—for me, that’ll always be “Persephone” from Treasure, the album the Cocteau Twins released a month after It’ll End In Tears came out. I can totally agree, though, that listening to “Song to the Siren” is always a profound and revelatory experience, and one that becomes more emotional the older I get. And Kelly, I’m going to disagree with you too—it’s true that on the surface Devoto (who I would imagine had a good ten years on the rest of This Mortal Coil, except for Ivo and Fryer) is definitely a mismatch for the song, but there’s something about the tension his uncomfortable, affected Devoto-isms create with the music that breaks through the fourth wall and makes “Holocaust,” for me, almost unbearably affecting. And come on, we can’t not mention “The Last Ray.” It might in some ways be less remarkable than the rest of It’ll End In Tears, but it’s a fucking manifesto of elegiac beauty anyway! It’s still hugely odd to think that three years after It’ll End In Tears came out, some of the people involved in creating this vast, crumbling city of emotion and mood would be part of M/A/R/R/S, the collective that put the pounding confidence of acid house at the top of the UK charts with “Pump Up the Volume“.
GRASSO: The legacy of It’ll End In Tears is profound and contradictory. It set the course for Watts-Russell’s label’s continued success in the latter half of the 1980s, but may have also contributed to bad blood between Ivo and the Cocteaus. It set 4AD’s visual and sonic aesthetic, but set it so rigidly that many future observers viewed the two follow-up This Mortal Coil projects, Filigree & Shadow (1986) and Blood (1991) as bloated and self-indulgent (both were double albums). It’s inspired everyone from drag queens to stand-up comics to David Lynch, who reportedly wanted to use “Song to the Siren” in Blue Velvet (1985) but couldn’t work out the rights with Tim Buckley’s estate.
The main reason I chose the album for us to review, though, came from Ivo Watts-Russell’s desire to save some of his favorite artists from the scrapheap of history. It’s an impulse I’ve grown to understand as we toil in the fields of digging up lost culture from our youths. You could call this album a vanity project, a command-performance mixtape, a deeply personal tribute to lost youth—maybe even all three. It stands cloaked in darkness and mystery and captures a very special, even unique, time and place in musical history. It’s a coming out party for a movement and an aesthetic that would have a long-lasting impact in the world of popular music. And at the same time, it’s a bridge connecting two very different eras of sincere, sensitive, introspective rock and roll.