I often find it takes me years to ‘get’ music, but I loved this when it was released, and it has been a favourite ever since, surviving its inevitable inclusion on soundtracks and adverts. But then the whole concept of the dreampop supergroup, This Mortal Coil, was guaranteed to appeal to teenage me, with its eclectic mix of artists, covers of psychedelic folk songs and uncanny, otherworldly sound.
The prettiness of the Larry Beckett/Tim Buckley tune and its poetic lyrics can easily sound fey (as several insipid covers attest) but the impact of this recording is mostly due to the strength and shimmering intensity of Elizabeth Fraser’s singing. Her voice is often described as angelic, and on this track has a slightly droning quality that certainly sounds other than human, as remote and as beguiling as the siren of the title.
I enjoy the Tim Buckley original, but it’s not my favourite of his songs, sung by him, and the only version I have heard that approaches this one is by The Czars. Singer John Grant cites This Mortal Coil as his inspiration and, much as I think that Elizabeth Fraser’s perfect, glacial voice embodies that of the supernatural creature, John Grant’s is, to me, the poor mortal, confused and completely bereft.
The lyrics allude to the well-known classical legend of the sirens who, by their irresistible singing, lured sailors to shipwreck. In a twist to the familiar tale, the sailor sings back to the siren. The song echoes the siren’s own words, returned as both reproach and appeal: Here I am, here I am, waiting to hold you. The repetition creates an ambiguity about who is singing and as the vocal sounds either (or neither) masculine or feminine, the roles of sailor and siren, pursuer and quarry are further confused. The drama turns on the moment that the sailor recognises the siren’s caprice or his own delusion. Did I dream, you dreamed about me?
Against the seductive beauty of the vocal, the chiming guitars and wailing synths are soothing, almost apologetic, suggestive of calm seas and gentle breezes. At the time, I identified with the song purely as a metaphor for the disappointment of unrequited love, and I suppose it can be, but now I hear it as an elegy for innocence, lamenting the evanescence of desire itself. There is a languor, a total lack of momentum about the whole piece and the mood is unmistakably one of aftermath and tristesse.