Goth music for happy kids: a dreampop primer
(Note: this was written for the Soaring Twenties Social Club’s symposium on Dreams.)
Dreampop! You know the stuff: chiming, reverb-drenched guitars and ethereal androgynous vocals; electronic percussion, heavy on the tambourines and sleigh bells; layers of synths so thick you don’t know if you are hearing a string pad, an organ, or a flute. Distortion on the guitars? Strictly optional; we’re more into chorus and tremolo. Do the words need to make sense or even be audible? Um, no, obviously!
Cocteau Twins is the archetypical example of dreampop: the records they made in their classic period, from 1983’s Head Over Heels to 1990’s Heaven or Las Vegas, defined the sound and set the parameters for all releases in the genre to come. Some other bands of note: Lush, Ride, Slowdive, Pale Saints, all of which were active in the cica-1992 peak of the genre. Contemporary groups such as Pinkshinyultrablast and Wild Nothing are continuing to mine the genre’s tropes to good effect. My Bloody Valentine’s opus Loveless would count as dreampop if it weren’t so ferocious. All these groups share a unifying concern with sound-as-such; the songs don’t really ever mean anything, and Cocteau Twins vocalist Elizabeth Fraser is famous for singing “lyrics” made of nonsense syllables and made-up words. As a genre, it is pleasant without being treacly, familiar without being clichéd, and predictable without being boring.
All of which made it the exact opposite kind of music from what the world wanted to hear in the nineties. Just as dreampop was beginning to build up traction in the British music scene . . . the grunge explosion happened in the aftermath of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Suddenly every young guitarist with any ambition at all was stocking up on flannel shirts and heading to Seattle to make it big. Was anyone traveling to England to learn from the adepts on the 4AD label? Hardly. The dreampop moment had come and gone, leaving casualties in its wake; My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive were kicked off their label, and Verve’s Richard Ashcroft was eaten alive by industry lawyers after he sampled the Rolling Stones on “Bittersweet Symphony.” What seemed about to become the big sound of the nineties simply faded away, like a half-remembered reverie.
That’s a shame, really, because the music is so good. As I mentioned before, dreampop has an uncanny quality of being about nothing at all yet still evoking strong emotions within the listener—feelings of wonder, security, bliss—in short, it’s so dreamy. Who wouldn’t want to bathe themselves in the glorious jangly guitars and multilayered crooning of the best dreampop tracks? For those adventurous enough to give the genre a try, much good quality music awaits.
Here, then, are some dreampop songs that you absolutely should not miss. This is a sensu lato list; some might debate my inclusion of a few of these cuts but in my mind, what we have here is a broad overview of a genre that was / is less a defined style than a jumping-off place for experimentation.
ONE: THE CLASSICS
Cocteau Twins, Pandora
This is the sound that started it all, and perhaps the closest our Scottish punks came to the Dreampop ideal: woozy guitars, bouncy synths, a swirling wash of voices, and those ever-present canned drums. Platonic and highly effective.
Pale Saints, Thread of Light
In contrast to Cocteau Twins’ high mannerist flavor of Dreampop, Pale Saints offers a conception of the genre with strong ties to conventional songcraft. They are key to understanding the sounds in a less esoteric, more approachable context. Here, notice how the underlying chords flirt with melancholy (a trick Cocteau Twins only rarely deploys; they are usually either all out or all in, moodwise) as well as the coda which does the mass-of-wordless-vocals thing to great effect.
The Verve, Beautiful Mind
A languid wash of reverby guitars and Richard Ashcroft’s cherubic vocal performance make this song a delight to the ears. Note how the band is careful to balance the tension in this track; passages of mellow beauty alternate with more energetic, tenser moments.
Here we see Ride taking pale Saints’ song-centric approach to the next logical step. Their sonics are informed not so much by My Bloody Valentine as by Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. Their approach is also vital to the jangly surf-pop of bands like Wild Nothing and Beach Fossils; hence, the direction they took the dreampop sound, while dissimilar to that of Cocteau Twins or Slowdive, is an important part of the genre.
Lush, Tiny Smiles
Of all the first-wave dreampop bands, Lush was the one most fond of experimenting with interesting, tricky rhythmic patterns. This song is in 4/4 but the accents are in unusual places; it’s a testament to how dreampop’s sonic palette could be deployed in musically diverse ways.
This is just a gorgeous little song; perhaps it’s the best dreampop song ever recorded. The blissed-out wall of sound and the stoned vocal harmonies expertly match the song’s image-driven, surrealistic lyrical material. Good stuff!
TWO: FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS
My Bloody Valentine, Swallow
People don’t often imagine MBV as a dreampop band because their guitars sound more like tuned chainsaws than anything else, but this back-catalog selection shows their talents in a lighter mood than usual. What is that instrument carrying the melody line? Is it a flugelhorn? Knowing Kevin Shields’ propensities, it’s probably just an effects-heavy guitar.
Robin Guthrie, Sparkle
Guthrie—the Cocteau Twins guitarist—is dreampop’s acknowledged master; we should listen to the master. One of the tightest, most formally perfect guitar instrumentals I’ve ever heard. Heavenly!
A focus on the “pop” side of dreampop is evidenced on this song; it’s also tenser and more edgy than the usual genre fare—however, Pale Saints would also explore such moods occasionally. The jangly guitars and airy vocals give it away; this is dreampop exploring new generic territory while still acknowledging its roots. Contains the classic line: “I had bad dreams, so bad I threw my pillow away.”
Slowdive, Blue Skied An’ Clear
A magnificent slow-burn opus from one of the pillars of the scene. Slowdive ventured into rather avant-garde regions on their Pygmalion record, but remembered where they came from on this track. Each element of the song is understated yet essential; the bass is a particular treat.
Cocteau Twins, Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops
This was their biggest UK chart hit. Fraser has one of the strongest voices of the eighties, and she deploys her instrument with skill and flair here. A real treat—not to be lightly dismissed. I’ve always thought the Twins were in finer form on their EPs than on their albums, for some reason.
The Cure, Pictures of You
Some might object to a goth band appearing on this list but let me explain: Disintegration is The Cure’s sunniest, brightest record, and this song is full of joy, despite the moody lyrics. This is a reworked version of the album recording with a more interesting percussion part; there is a passage (near the line “Home for the last time” at 5:02) where that drums drop out and then come back in, which reliably gives me the tingles.
THREE: NEW DIRECTIONS
Dreampop has found its most inventive new practitioner in Elon Musk’s girlfriend. All the old signifiers are here; the fake drumming, the vocal washes, the lilting synth lines. Missing are the chorus-drenched guitar squalls, but I don’t mind.
Wild Nothing, Through the Grass
This track, a Jack Tatum solo project, is resplendent with all the sounds we’ve come to associate with dreampop. However, it is in no way forced or derivative. It is slow, blissful, quiet, and pure. Tatum has obviously been studying his record collection, and his music is a labor of love.
Pinkshinyultrablast, Ravestar Supreme
This group’s approach to the Dreampop aesthetic takes the fundamental tropes of the genre and pushes them more along the shoegaze axis. But MBV’s guitars will abrade your ears right off; Pinkshinyultrablast’s will gently soothe them. Enchanting!
Blankenberge, Look Around
A delicious track from a band based in Dostoevsky’s hometown of St. Petersburg. This group is fond of using their guitars to make grandiose statements, a tactic not often heard in dreampop or even in shoegaze. This song, though, is more subdued than their usual work, despite being full of restless energy.
Grimes, So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth
Whatever you might think of Grimes, there’s no denying that she is a master of mood and tone. Here we have the dreampop vocabulary deployed to stunning effect. She updates the palette slightly, substituting hip hop beats for the usual snappy, crisp drumming of the bands from the nineties.
Cocteau Twins, Sultitan Itan
And for dessert, we come back to our friends from Grangemouth once again. Guthrie et al. are a very tight and precise ensemble, and this song is a fine instance of their ability to wield the verse / chorus form to stunning effect. Listen for Fraser’s vocal line in the second verse, with her long-held note ending in a baroque flourish—it gets me every time.
Well, there you go! I hope you enjoy these songs as much as I do. There is much more to explore in the genre as well; perhaps you will find your new favorite band in the dreampop universe. Happy listening!