4AD (DAD 1005 CD), 1991
Less a band and more a collective concept, This Mortal Coil is the brainchild of 4AD head Ivo Watts-Russell and producer John Fryer. Using personnel from a variety of sister-bands on the 4AD label, TMC albums are composed of obscure covers linked by original instrumentals, creating thick melodic atmospheres awash with 90s-era reverb, synthesizers, and drum machines. Blood, the third and final TMC album, differs from its predecessors (It’ll End in Tears and Filigree & Shadow) in that the emotional template has been heightened and focused, and that the album follows a less straightforward path. The result is a listening experience that changes depending on the mindset of the listener, and one that has not lost an ounce of potency or artistry in the years following its release.
“The Lacemaker” opens Blood in fine fashion, showcasing the TMC formula through mournful keyboards, wordless female lamenting, and beautiful melodies from a string quartet. While Blood does feature acoustic elements such as guitar, strings and piano, it’s largely an electronic record, shifting effortlessly from ambient to downtempo and back again, never stepping outside the established emotional boundaries set by the first moments. “The Lacemaker” changes completely halfway through but remains true to its core, something that happens often as Blood progresses.
Vocally, Blood has a more consistent palette than previous releases. The sweet lilts of Caroline Crawley (“Mr. Somewhere”) are balanced by the earthy croons of Dierdre Rutkowski (“With Tomorrow”), sometimes on the same track (“Help Me Lift You Up”). There are appearances by other voices as well – Kim Deal, Tanya Donnelly, Alison Limerick – but Crawley and Rutkowski are given the bulk of the spotlight, supported by minimal programming and melodic strings. The covers often bear little, if any, resemblance to the originals, with extra layers of emotion enhanced by the programming; calling these remixes is superficial. It’s remarkable how Watts-Russell and Fryer were consistently able to find what they were looking for and bring it out with such exacting attention to their overall vision.
Blood also excels in the experimentalism featured in instrumentals such as “Andialu,” with its looped washes, reverb-heavy vocal samples, and subtle stabs of noise, the playful bass-heavy dub of “Loose Joints,” the deep hums, music-box pluckings, and strange infant babbles of “Baby Ray Baby,” and the light beats and low-light mood of “D.D. and E.” Not only do these tracks serve as bridges between the cunningly disguised pop structures of the vocal tracks, but also as opportunities to let the listener’s mind wander through the midnight urban streets conjured so powerfully by Watts-Russell and Fryer. It’s easy to imagine oneself as a bodiless ghost, drifting through a late-night city (TMC just doesn’t have quite the same power during the day), soaking in the ambiance while sinking into the psyches of individuals scattered here and there, before lifting out and moving on to the next. Previous TMC albums hinted at this kind of experience, but it wasn’t until Blood when the potential fully blossomed. Aside from the two slight missteps of the too-long and too-abrasive “I Come and Stand at Every Door” and the out-of-place guitar-dominant pop of “I am the Cosmos,” the mood remains strong over the album’s 76+-minute running time.
Equally effective as sensual romantic connection and isolated lovelorn introspection, Blood is an influential and cohesive album that’s as transporting as the best ambient, while remaining true to its theme in spite of its range of moving parts. It’s hard to pick highlights from an album like this, which is clearly intended to be experienced as a complete work, maintaining a delicate balance between consistency of mood and experimental minimalism from its first moments to its last. Blood might not click on the same level with everyone, but for those it touches profoundly, there are few albums that can match its atmospheric power.