This Mortal Coil - Biography
This Mortal Coil wasn’t so much a band as it was a collaborative project driven by the particular aesthetic focus of Ivo Watts-Russell, the founder of quintessential post-punk and dream-pop label 4AD. Watts-Russell mixed original songs and carefully chosen covers performed by a rotating cast of musicians to sculpt his vision of gorgeous melancholy and dark ambience. The three full-lengths recorded by the group between 1983 and 1991 remain cornerstones of the goth-rock and dream-pop genre, and perhaps best sum up the early aesthetic of the 4AD label.
The only official members of This Mortal Coil are Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer. This British duo is responsible for much of the music, but key members of groups like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, Colourbox, Wolfgang Press, Cindytalk, and more played significant roles on all three records. The genesis of the project lies in Watts-Russell’s unsuccessful attempts to persuade Modern English to rerecord two early songs as a medley. The band refused, so Watts-Russell recruited Elizabeth Fraser and Robin Guthrie from the Cocteau Twins, Gordon Sharp of Cindytalk, and a few members of Modern English to cover the songs. The debut EP was released in ’83. Titled Sixteen Days / Gathering Dust, the Modern English medley is nine minutes of beautiful, lush, swirling atmosphere and Fraser’s otherworldly vocals. The B-side features a cover of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” and “Sixteen Days (Reprise).” “Song to the Siren,” with its throbbing, dark mystery and Fraser’s stunningly gorgeous vocals, became a hit and was issued as its own 7” single the same year.
1984 brought the release of This Mortal Coil’s first full-length. It’ll End In Tears remains the group’s best record. Featuring original songs written by Watts-Russell, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins, Gordon Sharp, and Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard as well as covers by songwriters like Big Star’s Alex Chilton, Roy Harper and Wire’s Colin Newman, the album is tense, serene, melancholy and achingly gorgeous. String arrangements soaked in endless reverb merge with chiming guitars, droning synthesizers, piano and accordion performed by members of many of 4AD’s signature bands as well as cellist Martin McCarrick and singer Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks. Standouts include covers of Chilton’s “Kangaroo,” Newman’s “Not Me” and Gerrard’s original composition “Waves Become Wings.” It’ll End In Tears is the blueprint for many dream-pop and shoegaze bands and the start of the early “4AD sound” that bands like Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance would perfect over time.
Watts-Russell and Fryer began to work on the second record almost immediately after the debut was released. Several of their collaborators returned for the sophomore effort, including stronger roles for both Raymonde and McCarrick. New contributors included members of Dif Juz and singers Dominic Appleton, Deirdre and Louise Rutkowski, and Alison Limerick. Filigree & Shadow was released in September of 1986. The core blend of modern classical arrangements, heavily treated guitars, reverbed vocals, and dark whorls of electronic ambience is firmly in place on original instrumentals and beautiful covers of tracks by the likes of Talking Heads, Van Morrison, Gene Clark, Colin Newman, Tim Buckley, Pearls Before Swine, and Judy Collins. Sprawling over two discs, the album is held together by Watts-Russell’s uniquely focused aesthetic.
The final This Mortal Coil album arrived in 1991. Blood saw the project congeal around Watts-Russell, Fryer, McCarrick, Appleton, Limerick, and the Rutkowskis, but also included new singers Kim Deal of the Pixies, Deal’s bandmate in the Breeders Tanya Donelly, Caroline Crawley, and Heidi Berry. While the record isn’t as sprawling as its immediate predecessor it also slightly lacks the organic flow of It’ll End In Tears. The instrumentals here are beautifully wrought, foggy washes of hypnotically minimal ambience, marking Watts-Russell and Fryer as exceptional composers in their own right. Standout vocal tracks come from Deal and Donelly’s queasy take on Chris Bell’s “You and Your Sister,” Crawley’s nakedly tense version of Syd Barrett’s “Late Night,” and Appleton’s raw performance on Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos.”
Along with a few of the other early 4AD bands, This Mortal Coil virtually invented dream-pop over three timeless records of shimmering, cinematic melancholia. The project would go on to influence an entire generation of musicians and artists.