This Mortal Coil


A kind of retrospective of the noisy, quiet, ambient, Dark Gothic of TMC from Alan Dearling with help from Keith Rodway

I’m rather guessing here. I think This Mortal Coil may have passed many 1980s’and early ‘90s’ listeners by. That’s the case with myself. I had been getting into Massive Attack, Leftfield, David Sylvian, occasionally Kate Bush, and the Chemical Brothers. But, had only dipped a small toe into the Gothick deadpool of the Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Modern English, Throwing Muses, the Wolfgang Press, Colourbox, Xmal Deutschland, Breathless, the Breeders and later, Shelleyan Orphan. Dystopian, fragile, creepy and both over-blown, over-produced and also sparsely elemental and empty. And so it has come to pass, as things do, I was listening to a radio programme celebrating the life and work of Tim Buckley, (dad of Jeff Buckley, another haunted spirit), and one of the original class of 27-ers. Those who died way too young. Tim was a supremely gifted songwriter, singer and visionary. During that radio broadcast, two recordings of Tim’s songs were aired. Both by different ‘versions’ of Tim’s songs, re-imagined by This Mortal Coil. The first was, ‘Song to the Siren’ featuring the distinctive voice of Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins, and the second, ‘Morning Glory’ featuring Deirdre and Louise Ruthowski.

It tempted me into something of a journey back into the three album adventure of This Mortal Coil, who were never a band, rather a conglomeration of artists who worked with, or were known to, Ivo Watts-Russell, the sonic adventurer behind 4AD records. He called TMC a “pursuit of the Happy Accident”. He also adds that it was a journey for him “to realise a dream I didn’t know was in me.”

4AD website


A Strange Legacy Revisited and Re-Mastered

In 2011, the three original albums from This Mortal Coil were re-mastered by John Fryer, Ivo’s sound wizard, accompanied with deliciously dark, haunting, arty visual images of a particular muse and model, Pallas Citroen, photographed in soft focus monochrome by Nigel Grierson. Pallas was the visual persona of TMC. It all fits in a strange way. TMC were a different and evolving collective of musical artists and Ivo Watts-Russell was the engine behind the ‘sounds’, the atmospherics and the ‘dreams’. Pallas wasn’t one of the musicians in TMC.

It is these Japanese re-mixed releases on CDs in lovingly crafted card covers, picturing photo montages and artworks that I’ve been listening to. Each album is a melange of ‘covers’ of quite obscure songs, particular from the late 1960s/‘70s. Compositions from the likes of Tim Buckley, Tom Rapp, Gene Clark, Van Morrison, Syd Barrett, Randy California, Colin Newman, Roy Harper, David Byrne and Brian Eno. Many feature female voices full of harmonics and angst – a common thread – the strong, individualistic voices of Elizabeth Fraser, Lisa Gerrard, Alison Limerick, Louise and Deirdre Ruthowski, Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly, Heidi Berry and Caroline Crawley, plus the sonic skills of artful men like Howard Devoto and Dominic Appleton. Lots of musicians too. The whole sum is even more strangely ethereal and surreal than the parts. There’s a lot of echoes, repetition, segues of sounds, drones, waves of double-tracked phasing, backwards, warped and often rather unpleasant walls of sound, and over-laden banks of sonority.  Light and shade/black and white/loud and silent.

The first album, ‘It’ll End in Tears’, features Elizabeth Fraser and Lisa Gerrard; Dominic Appleton, Alison Limerick and the Ruthowskis are notable in the forefront of the second album, ‘Filigree and Shadow’, but the third, ‘Blood’, is really the masterwork. It’s more finely honed, tuned and crafted with much more input from Ivo Watts-Mills himself. It’s a set of conceptual soundscapes, full of lush and dramatic audio productions.  It reminds me of a funeral, conjured up by a master magician, filmic and sometimes disembodied Laurie Anderson artscapes – a depth of white noise nightmares and dreams, a macabre sometimes floating subterranean world. Not a pleasant place or space, but mesmerising, a bit like the Sound of the Siren, in fact!

Here are some of the more accessible moments from the This Mortal Coil crypt! 


‘Song to the Siren’:

And live version of Elizabeth Fraser re-interpreting Tim Buckley’s ode to life, death, hope and sadness…heartache and redemption…

From Youtube:
Lali Pop
on ‘Song to the Siren’:

“This sounds like the most beautiful love, and all the sorrow and heart break possible at the same time. Overwhelmingly beautiful and haunting forever.”

Caroline Crawley from ‘Blood’: ‘Late Night’: Creepy, darkly sensuous and full of the TMC ‘Iced-Goth’ ingredient:



‘Kangaroo’ (a Cocteau Twins’ fave) is one of the most played tracks from TMC:

A great source of info and links: All Music:

And here is an image from ‘Dust & Guitars’, a posthumous ‘collection’ of TMC singles and more, only available in a boxed set from 2017:


An alternative view on the 1980s and ‘This Mortal Coil’

Keith Rodway, musician and composer with the Necessary Animals

The 1980s was for me a baffling time. It started well. In the UK post-punk took the fuck-you primal roar of classic British punk and breathed much-needed new life into the time-worn formula of men-with-guitars. With Echo and The Bunnymen, the Cure, Wire, the Fall, PIL and the Smiths all writing great tunes it seemed rock music had reinvented itself for a new era. It was exciting and forward looking. All seemed right with the world. And with the gender barriers down and women not just admitted to the fold, but claiming at last equal status, bands like the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Raincoats, Delta 5 and the Au Pairs smashed the myth of women being second class citizens of the macho world of rock.

And then, almost overnight, everything changed. The pale, awkward-looking young men of the New Romantics swapped guitars for bleepy synths and reinvented pop with remarkable results. Machine music had arrived, bringing a refreshing new aesthetic into the arena. MTV ushered in a new era of acts fighting for ascendance where visuals became at least as important as the music, often seemingly more so, raising production budgets and marginalising independent acts such as the Smiths in the process. A whole generation of artists who had been dominant in the previous decade struggled with the new digital production techniques (Listen to the original mix of Pink Floyd’s A Momentary Lapse of Reason and you’ll get a fair idea of what I mean). Factor in CDs, the shiny new miracle format, and the putsch was a done deal. Everything now would sound glacial and curiously bloodless, and for me This Mortal Coil epitomised a sense that in the rush to embrace the new sound something vital had been discarded. And all this against the economic backdrop of the Thatcher/ Reagan ‘economic miracle’, when personal greed became a public virtue, and if you didn’t keep up it was assumed you weren’t trying hard enough.

Never really a band, more a series of recording projects for 4-AD supremo Ivo Watts-Russell, TMC was the perfect articulation of an era where minimalist elegance dominated ‘yuppie’ culture – the milieu of the new generation of young professionals. Everything had to be smooth and sleek, with emotion seemingly performed rather than genuinely expressed. 80s albums by Roxy Music and Sade fit perfectly with domestic espresso machines and ‘Scandesign’ – the precursor to homes furnished en masse at IKEA. Out with your dad’s old hi fi, in with discreet ‘music systems’ – radio, CD and cassette all in one unobtrusive unit.

The track that brought TMC to mainstream attention – a cover of Tim Buckley’s Song of the Siren – was awash with glistening reverbs and Elizabeth Fraser’s razor-sharp but austere vocal. It established a winning formula that would serve Ivo well for the years to follow. 40 years later, TMC have an impressive 300,000 listeners on Spotify. This was a band that never truly existed, never toured, never made public appearances. Yet against the odds, they clearly got something right.

Listening to it now I remain unmoved. Everything about it sparkles with a superficial gloss that seems to signify a sense of distraction, stripped of earthiness and urgency, with only a kind of humourless void remaining, remote and unreachable, with the dirt and noise of human passion surgically excised. 

Pretty much a soundtrack to the 1980s I suppose.




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One Response to This Mortal Coil

    1. Song of the Siren…such a stunning interpretation of his late father’s song that Jeff fell in love with Liz. I think it’s staggeringly beautiful.

      Comment by Heidi Stephenson on 29 March, 2022 at 3:43 pm

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