David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 14: Cocteau Twins (Persephone)

May 10, 2020

For a word guy like me, it is really frustrating when I don't know the lyrics to a song. Heck, even when I know the lyrics to a song, I can't remember them correctly (as I noted with Tanya Donelly's entry in this series), or, and maybe this a Fleming thing, I spectacularly mis-hear them.  Famously (among my friends) my mother thought Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" was "Way Down South," while my father, who really had difficulty hearing, thought The Cars' "Don't Cha Stop" was "Cookie Jar" and The Knack's "My Sharona" was "Rice-a-Roni."  (What can I say, Fleming men have a special place in our hearts for food.)

Even REM eventually realized that the lyric, both in terms of being heard and being comprehensible, mattered. Then there are Cocteau Twins, who over the course of 8 albums refused to allow Elizabeth Fraser's vocal styling be turned into comprehensible lyrics.  Twice in an hour this week, while working on some things in downtime from Zoom meetings, I heard two Cocteau Twins' songs from the ethereal Treasure: "Donimo" and "Persephone."  The Twins (who like The Thompson Twins were actually three band members not related) always had song titles that lent little insight into song meaning, but on Treasure all song titles were obscure names, often mythological: Pandora, Ivo, Aloysius, Beatrix, to name a few.

As a general rule, the songs rely heavily on the drums, synthesizers, and guitars. For "Persephone," the staccato beat of the drum and slashing guitars compete equally with Fraser's voice to create a sublime song about . . . the goddess of vegetation?

You think that might be the place to start to decipher the lyrics. The Cocteau Twins were never going to publish their lyrics, so all of the music geeks around the world were going to have to do that. Music geeks know there are dozens of websites that archive lyrics, almost all submitted by anyone BUT the artist.  Usually for a song where the lyrics are intelligible even if never published by the artist, there is 100% consistency in the lyrics from site to site.  But for "Persephone" (or any Cocteau Twins' song), that is not even close. Look at what these sites post for the song's first 8-10 lines. Note the ridiculousness of both the guesses but also with the variety from site to site:

Genius Lyric: Hey the chances I must place/Hey but it don't even feel most what I've got/Here's what it takes/Paper chase is on/These are harmless things/For you are bored/But a rabbit fold/All the charred rope/by your chin strap/Paper chase is on/these are harmless things.

Attempt to make overall logic: 2/5.  Potential connection to vegetation: 1/5 (I might give a point for the rabbit.)

AZ Lyrics: Hey the chances I must waste/Hey every dirge even their moth got a jar/Here's what it takes/Paper chase is on/These are on my speed/for you are but/but around the fold/On the charnel/By your chin strap/Paper chase is on/These are on my space

Attempt to make overall logic: 1/5. Potential connection to vegetation: 2/5 (The moth and the charnel make me think of dying vegetation)

Lyrics.com: Hey the chances I must waste/Hey ever dirt even there month got a car/Here's what it takes/Paper chase is on/these are on my speed/For he warbled/Bought arachnophobe/On the tiara/By the gin's rack/Paper chase is on/These are on my space.

Ability to make over logic: -1/5. Potential connection to vegetation: 1/5. Would have also been -1 but it gets a point for "dirt" and another one because my dad's voice is in my ear saying, "how do you penalize anyone for thinking they hear gin's rack?"

Most other lyric sites have the same as Lyrics.com, which makes me no more confident in the ability of humans to decipher non-sensical singing, but more apt to remember that humans are inherently lazy. One of these sites came up with this lyrical rendering and dozens raced in and simply copied it.  To go from "charred rope" to "on the charnel" to "on the tiara" is quite the range even for the laziest of transcribers.

The only phrase they seem able to agree upon is the frequently repeated "here's what it takes."  Shows me what I know. Near the end, I thought at that point she was singing "I Want Your Sex." (This is well before I heard George Michael sing that.) I still think I am right.

Here on Mother's Day, it makes you wonder if Elizabeth Fraser pulls a grandkid up on her knee and ask, "want to see what idiots thought I was singing?"  She laughs, the youngster looks puzzled, then she sings the baby talk that formed "Persephone" 35 years ago. The child understands!

"Persephone." Cocteau Twins. Treasure. 4AD. 1984. Link here.

Day 13: The Boo Radleys "Stuck On Amber."

Day 15: Justin Currie "If I Ever Loved You."

See complete list here.