As a child of the ‘90s, I’ve only ever known a world after Loveless. Just a year before my entry into this world, My Bloody Valentine released its second LP and, for many, opened a window into another, more transcendent and significantly louder world that has never been the same since.
MBV is the kind of band that can wait 22 years to release a new album and announce at a concert that their third record, after all that time, would probably be coming out in the next two or three days. And the kind of band that would make bloggers and Tweetniks buzz with gossip about whether frontman Kevin Shields could be taken seriously or not. And the kind of band that would make good on its promise, releasing its third album, m b v, on its website to such a flurry of enthusiasm that its server crashed on February 2 and was not restored until February 3.
My Bloody Valentine’s most consistent and classic lineup includes guitarists/singers Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe. They began playing together in an era where The Clash, Joy Division and New Order had all spoken words that could never be taken back. These bands had served as figureheads for the punk, post-punk and new wave eras respectively. Each had contributed something to music which would be impossible to ignore in the decades following. It was left to Shields and company to pioneer and virtually create the next significant genre of music: shoegaze.
The band’s first record, Isn’t Anything, hit the shelves after a long string of EPs in 1988. All of what would become the band’s trademarks are present here in their prototype form; it has the feel of college-aged youth still trying to find their place in a postgraduate world. The drums slap more than thud; the guitar sound skids with feedback and the vocals are far from prominent, even in their more deliberate and clear moments.
It would be a crime to call the album underdeveloped in any way, but its most endearing quality is how akin it is to a starting line. It was here the band was revving its engines, making last-minute repairs on an already supernatural vehicle. The shoegaze revivalists of today borrow most of their tricks and devices from Isn’t Anything—they’re fully aware mimicking what came next would be a fool’s errand.
1991’s Loveless is an album par excellence, its music perfected, widened and deepened into an Atlantic Ocean’s worth of sound. From the snare attacks and whining guitars of first track, “Only Shallow” to the distorted whirlpools of album closer “Soon,” Shields was able to create an unprecedented and impossible-to-duplicate listening experience.
Let’s get something straight: this isn’t easy listening, nor is it the kind of record for impatient listeners. Without exaggeration, I can say it took me four years of occasional retries to eventually wake up one morning and think blissfully to myself “I finally get it!”
From the first listen, however, Loveless is a record so towering in its monolithic grandeur you can’t help but want to listen again and again, hoping to one day get to the bottom of its unplumbable depths. If you can listen to “Sometimes,” hear the keyboards kick in and not think you’ve touched something beyond the normal constraints of reality, you need to go back to your first day on this planet and start again.
So, what of the thief-in-the-night release of m b v? Waiting 22 years to release a follow-up is a tough feat, but topping or even following up Loveless is an ever taller order.
Opinions about My Bloody Valentine records are hard to crystallize on the fly or first listen. More than any other band, they require repetitive listens for anything close to a valid, worthwhile opinion to be formulated. I’ll say with confidence, though, that none of their other releases have captivated me from the first go-around quite as much as m b v.
Perhaps I’ve spent enough time with the band to see this new release as a welcome home, a sort of warm embrace by the same sonic washes that I and so many others have come to love. Its territory is familiar yet different. Shields has said, “It’s not going to sound like Loveless where it’s like looking into another world … more like Isn’t Anything, where it seems to be of this world, but with one foot in another world.” The important thing here is that Kevin Shields remains one of the only current musicians who can talk about creating other worlds with his songs and mean it with humble honesty.
It’s this ability to create a world’s worth of new sonic textures which makes My Bloody Valentine’s music almost worshipful. They’re a band of contradictions, the loudest group of quiet people you’ll ever hear. Unlike most other music, their songs don’t come as readymade morsels for devouring but as waves crashing on a beach. Their music suggests there’s an architecture to the rushing of water, sound and vision.
In fact, the human soul has a lot more in common with My Bloody Valentine than Top 40 radio: always crashingly loud, always haunted by whispers.