Album Review: MBV – My Bloody Valentine
Last Saturday morning I woke up, handled my morning ablutions, and sat in front of my computer in order to see what had transpired in our mutual existence while I was unconscious. As I engaged in my drowsy web routine I came across an article from The Atlantic Wire which contained a detailed chronology of the broken promises of one Kevin Shields. For over two decades millions of people have waited for the follow-up album to My Bloody Valentine’s undeniable 1991 masterpiece Loveless, and for over two decades it didn’t arrive, no matter how many times Shield’s assured us “it would be out soon”. While the article was somewhat tongue-in-cheek I found it disturbing that it made me chuckle- the reality regarding the Loveless follow-up was that it had been so long that I couldn’t even muster frustration, let alone anger, resentment, or any other kind of selfishly inappropriate human emotion. It was, instead, kind of a joke.
I can still remember when I first heard Loveless. It had already been around for several years (the reasons for my late arrival had a lot to do with Axl and Slash), but its impact upon first listen has only been duplicated one other time in my life, and that was by Exile On Main Street (which is some rather illustrious company). I never imagined music could sound like Loveless; I'd never had any idea that an aural aesthetic of obscured beauty could be so powerful, mesmerizing and paradigm-changing. Somehow, I was waiting for Loveless my entire life. For the remainder of the 90s I would ride my bike as fast as I could while listening to Loveless, hoping in vain that if I reached the proper velocity, while a certain monolithic chord progression consumed me, I would turn into sound. It never once happened, but I tried often.
As the decades passed and the 90s became the 00s I joined an unofficial, helpless, and growing legion. We would get together informally via the rhythms of our lives (at school, during cyphs in my living room, at record stores) to dissect and revere Loveless, then swap urban legends about Kevin Shields. We heard and said it all at these junctures: we theorized that Shields bankrupted Creation Records in his attempts to record a follow-up... or that he'd built a state-of-the-art recording studio, but it took so long to create it was obsolete by the time it was finished...No, Kevin Shields had abandoned the guitar altogether in order to become an underground British DJ... Or perhaps Shields actually had recorded follow-ups (four of them, to be precise), only to destroy the masters at the completion of every production cycle... Needless to say, over time our speculation got a little bit out of hand.
Then something strange happened.
At some point in the construction of the Loveless follow-up legend, the legend itself became somewhat comforting. The fact that the follow-up was never released seemed to make the achievements of Loveless grow even larger over time. The idea of Kevin Shields being so overwhelmed by the pressure to deliver a follow-up to one of the most important records of his generation now seemed endearing, admirable, even romantic in its own way. Here was a man who didn’t consider art to be ephemeral, and refused to rush it. We believed Shields cared too much, and how could we blame him for such an honorable pursuit? This wasn’t a situation where we were making excuses for our hero (though we obviously were); our hero was tortured and defeated by his own greatness. It became a certainty that there would never be a third My Bloody Valentine record, because its completion would surely cost Shields his sanity.... or even his life. Don’t sit there all derisively, these are the insane places the mind goes when it obsesses about something for twenty years.
Then, something even stranger happened.
Last Saturday afternoon My Bloody Valentine updated their Facebook, and told the world the new record was being released later that night. For a second I thought about how ironic it was that I’d just read an article about Shields' broken promises on the very day the hallowed record was actually being released-then I started to wonder if this was going to be yet another let down. I pondered the circumstance for a brief moment before deciding I couldn’t risk it, so I tethered myself to my computer screen where I spent the night refreshing various web pages, and trying not to unravel. Finally, at around 11PM-four hours after the record had actually, really, truly been released, and summarily broke the internet- I managed to get through and buy my own copy of MBV, the record I thought would never be.
I had anticipated a wide range of reactions for the moment I got my hands on the new My Bloody Valentine record, but I never considered the possibility of what actually happened: I was paralyzed with fear. I sat in front of my music playing device, but couldn’t bring myself to press Play, as my mind suddenly became flooded with pessimism and doubt. I realized that as long as there wasn’t a follow-up to Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s legacy was pristine. They had some quality EPs (good luck getting your hands on them), the innocent joie de vivre of Isn’t Anything, and the gigantic awesome of Loveless. All those releases had created an immaculate and flawless career; what if this record couldn’t live up to either the hype, or the standard, we'd come to expect? Shields himself surely experienced similar apprehensions before uploading his record to the internet, and it was as I considered his courage that I summoned enough of my own to experience the record of my dreams.
With a shaking hand MBV was cued in my home, and when the first rumbles of She Found Now filled the air I let the happiness and relief wash over me simultaneously. From the very first seconds of audio two things were clear: 1) My Bloody Valentine never lost it, and 2) This record would have been enormous if it had been released on time (1994-ish). Every exquisite hallmark of the band’s legendary and often-imitated sound was instantly evident: Bilinda Butcher’s ethereal vocals, Kevin Shields’ exceptional guitar playing, the band’s patented whammy-bar-induced de-tuned rhythmic manipulations, and the blissful miasmic production techniques which set their work apart from everyone elses. I was beyond stunned; I couldn’t believe I'd ever had any reservations about this record, and I was surprised to see how quickly they all melted away.
She Found Now blew through my speakers in a blissful breeze, and brought with it all of the gray (fuzz distortions are gray, people) harmonic overtones necessary to blot out the sun. I smiled through its runtime and I was thrilled for myself, for other My Bloody Valentine fans around the world, and most of all for Shields. Everything was indeed in its right place. When the drum hits of Only Tomorrow kicked off the second track, they gave off the sensation that the band was flying now, and firing on all cylinders. The first track was meant to bridge the sonic gap between the band’s earlier work and their “modern cuts”, kind of like an aural reminder, and it did so wonderfully. Only Tomorrow on the other hand, has more substance than the opener; it moves more, and features a classic Butcher melody and a wonderfully-meandering legato outro-line which you will be hearing kids attempt to copy for several years to come.
By the time the second track of MBV was over I experienced a new-found optimism, and looked forward to the coming of each track as if it were a holiday from my youth. Who Sees You came up next, and any composition which decides to replace the notion of a standard sing-along chorus with a string-bend-drenched passage of warped, sky-splitting guitars will always be a winner in my book, heart, and ears. MBV’s fourth track, Is This And Yes, serves as an aural reset, much in the same way Touched did on Loveless, except Is This And Yes is a considerably longer track which actually contains sparse vocals. Is This And Yes is admittedly one of the weaker compositions on this record, but its weightlessly ambient feel still contributes something to the album, and its palette cleansing properties are exceedingly effective within the context of the entire listening experience. The action picks back up with If I Am, a very Cocteau Twins-inspired track which does a serviceable job of resetting the stage, and is once again buttressed by some incredibly unique guitar lines courtesy of Ireland’s greatest living guitar player (sorry The Edge).
All of those wonderful cuts set up the album's last four fantastic tracks, the best stretch of the record by far.
New You may very well be the most straightforward pop song Kevin Shields has ever written. The track’s musical accompaniment is minimal, the vocals are more present in the mix than usual, the bassline is of the ubiquitously catchy alternative sort, and the song itself, apart from being truly great, might have some crossover appeal. New You comes off as Shields' equivalent of throwing the masses a bone- a bone they probably have no interest in, but a bone nonetheless. What follows New You may well be the best song on the record, as In Another Way shook the walls of my apartment with its glorious, neon, life-changing attack. In Another Way is the song I have been waiting 20 years for; a swirling composition of radiance, with angular vocal lines, a propulsive back-beat, and a delay-drenched guitar figure which resembles Doppler-affected silver-toned bagpipes soaring through the sky. I have listened to In Another Way over a dozen times since Saturday, and I look forward to hearing it a thousand times more over the course of this year.
MBV’s final two tracks pass by in a flash, ending the record in an interesting and unpredictable fashion. Nothing Is does nothing but assault for three and a half solid minutes, only getting louder as the track attempts to crush you with its non-stop intensity. There is something about Nothing Is which comes off as more of a statement than Is This And Yes (the other gear-shifting track), though maybe it’s just the volume and ass-kicking nature. Finally the album's last track, Wonder 2, closes the proceedings on a ludicrously unexpected, yet fascinating, foot. With a central theme consisting of a backwards-reverb loop and a skittering Aphex Twin-inspired phased-out drum figure, Wonder 2 sounds less like My Bloody Valentine than any other track on the record. The song is still completely awe-inspiring in its own way, and its sonic evolution may very well be a portent for things to come on the next record. I only hope my yet-to-be-conceived son will be around to review that album when it drops fifty years from now.
When the last skittering drum hits of Wonder 2 faded away, and the final echoes of MBV were gone, I felt exhausted. I soul-searched instantly to see what my first pure, unfiltered, reactions were, and there was a lot of conflict inside me. The first thing I had to accept was that MBV doesn't quite hold a candle to Loveless. Really, how could it have? The more I thought about that the more sense it made. Why would Shields even attempt to recapture that magic? Perhaps he had, and that was part of the reason it took 21 years for this record to be released. We’ll never know.
Once I accepted that MBV didn’t need to be Loveless, I considered how little their sound has evolved. My first thought was: “Why would you alter such breathtaking euphony?” There may be some who consider the sound dated, but those people don’t understand that this sound is the My Bloody Valentine we've all grown to love over these years. No one gives a shit that Tame Impala wants to sound like the 60s bands of yesteryear, so why should anyone be bothered by My Bloody Valentine sounding like My Bloody Valentine? The sound may not have evolved all that much, but this is only the band’s third record, and they seem to still have statements to make with their frequencies.
As I continued to process MBV the next step was dealing with a startling amount of anger. Why the hell did we have to wait so long?!?! As I stated before, this record would have been an enormous smash if it was released in 1994. Think about it for a second; Kurt Cobain had just died, Billy Corgan sold millions of records stealing numerous aspects of My Bloody Valentine’s sound, and Radiohead hadn’t even released The Bends yet. If Kevin Shields had released this record in that gap (many of these songs were demoed back then), he might have ascended even higher in the Pantheon of 90s alternative geniuses. The man could have been every bit as influential a guitar player as Corgan, Moore and Malkmus, every bit as lauded a producer as Albini and Vig, and every bit as revered a legend as Cobain or Yorke. Instead he was crippled by <insert your own theory here>, and unfortunately squandered some of his primacy (the man is nearly 50 years old now). My Bloody Valentine should have been one of the best active bands in the world for the last 21 years, and in the wake of hearing MBV, I was forced to consider what could have been.
My final thoughts on MBV were all clear as crystal once I escaped the shadow of all that had come before it. Realistically speaking, the record is superb, and is all we could have hoped for. My Bloody Valentine has finally returned, and their form is honestly as good as ever. It’s an immensely impressive feat to not disappoint those who have been dreaming, hoping, wishing, and waiting for you, and it’s even more impressive when you surpass their expectations. You need to listen to this record now. As for me... I’m going to go ride my bike for a while.