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A Warm, Dark Dream: A Love Letter to This Mortal Coil

There is no better introduction to This Mortal Coil—one of my favorite bands of all time—than the quote that graces the top of their page on 4AD‘s website: “This Mortal Coil was not a band, but a unique collaboration of musicians recording in various permutations, the brainchild of 4AD kingpin Ivo Watts-Russell. The idea was to allow artists the creative freedom to record material outside of the realm of what was expected of them; it also created the opportunity for innovative cover versions of songs personal to Ivo.” But while it may concisely sum up the band’s mission, it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of either their influence or their appeal.

If you’ve ever heard of This Mortal Coil, it’s almost certainly on account of one song: “Song to the Siren,” one of the first records ever released under the collective’s name. Among the people who have fallen under the spell of that particular song is none other than David Lynch, who—long story short—wanted it for Blue Velvet, was unable to get the rights, and took his producer’s advice to make his own version with “Mysteries of Love,” the start of a collaboration that would lead to the now-iconic soundtrack of Twin Peaks. Things would eventually come full circle when Lynch was able to use it in Lost Highway, where it would feature prominently in the film’s climax.

While “Song to the Siren” is certainly a stunning tune, it’s only scratching the surface of what I consider to be one of music’s richest catalogs—especially considering the group’s ethereal existence. This Mortal Coil only ever had two official members—4AD label head Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer—and they were a project that lived entirely in the studio, never touring or giving any live performances.

Instead, the group was entirely populated by a rotating cast of musicians, either members of the 4AD label or outside artists that Watts-Russell wanted to collaborate with. It was an impressive roster, featuring artists from well-known groups like Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, and The Pixies to lesser-known vocalists like Alison Limerick and Caroline Crowley.

Cover artwork for It’ll End In Tears

While the group indeed served as a creative outlet where these musicians could explore territory beyond what they might have otherwise recorded, they were always firmly guided by Watts-Russell’s aesthetic and tastes while still managing to feel like a collaborative effort. Apart from a handful of entirely original songs—mostly gracing their final album, BloodThis Mortal Coil’s music falls entirely into one of two categories: cover songs and instrumental passages.

The cover songs illustrate the duality at the heart of This Mortal Coil, taking what were usually soft, relatively sunny acoustic songs and preserving the heart of each one while reimagining them in oceans of reverb and shadows. The “songwriting” roster was almost as impressive, as the group’s covers ranged from the likes of Gene Clark and Tim Buckley to Talking Heads and Big Star. The vibe always came out dark, but it’s a darkness that’s filled with warmth and comfort, one that seemingly embraces you with each listen.

Seemingly nothing was off-limits for This Mortal Coil. Their three albums—It’ll End In Tears, Filligree & Shadow, and Blood—featured everything from harsh, Eraserhead style ambiance to delicate, ethereal ballads and nearly radio-friendly pop adjacent tunes. The only real genre or label you could even put on their music is the one that they would be regarded as practically defining: dream pop.

A close-up black and white photograph of half of a woman's face, covered in diffuse light and shadows.
Cover artwork for Filigree & Shadow

Fittingly, each of the group’s three albums plays out like a dream, guided by moods and emotions rather than anything concrete. Vocalists come and go like ghosts; things like melody and traditional song structures are treated more as suggestions than a hard set of rules, able to be thrown aside as the group saw fit. Songs often flow into one another, sometimes neatly, sometimes shifting moods while still managing to be a cohesive whole.

One particularly memorable section off of Filigree & Shadow takes us from a tribal instrumental passage (“At First, and Then”) to a stirring anthem (“Strength of Strings”) to sublime bliss (“Morning Glory”) before giving us a half orchestral, half electronic passage (“Inch-Blue”) before finally leaving us on a note close to rapture (“I Want To Live”). The only word I can think of to describe it is ecstatic, in its original meaning of roughly “outside of time.”

The text "This Mortal Coil" sits atop the image, which features a black and white photograph of a woman's face.
Cover artwork for Blood

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I discovered This Mortal Coil—I saw Lost Highway for the first time about five years ago, although I didn’t pick up on the group until maybe a year after that, but it’s impossible to overstate the impact the group has had on my taste in music in the time since I first listened to them. This Mortal Coil has proven to be a doorway into discovering maybe a quarter of the artists currently in my Spotify library, both through the group’s members and the artists’ work they were reimagining.

I haven’t gotten into much in terms of hard analysis when it comes to the group, and I don’t know how much I could really get into—it’s just music that makes you feel, and that takes you places. Even after all this time listening to them, I don’t think I could anymore explain one of their records than I could one of my dreams.

But I suppose that’s at the heart of what makes them so appealing to me. I’ve never found another group quite like them, one that feels so guided by raw, unfiltered emotion. There are plenty of bands and artists out there in a similar vein musically—a great many of them are found here—but none of them feel as…intuitive, I think I want to say? Nor do any of them have such a diverse list of creators and collaborators—it really does feel like Watts-Russell simply got a big group friends together, said they should reinterpret some of these songs he was fond of, and put the result on vinyl. Their three albums are all ones I keep coming back to again and again, discovering some new facet with each listen.

So it is with unending gratitude that I write this, and I can think of it as nothing short of a love letter to what is undoubtably one of my favorite little corners of the music world. So, here’s to many more years of both listening too and being utterly lost in This Mortal Coil’s warm, dark dream—and perhaps, helping another person or two discover them for themselves.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

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  1. Hi you should mention the brilliance of the album artwork as well by 23 Envelope who collaborated with the artists and created such unique sleeve designs.
    Both Nigel and Vaughan were an amazing original design team.

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