It is important at times to remember that music isn’t just a commodity intended to spur discussion: that it is also a product ostensibly with a degree of usefulness, whether to provide the backbeat for social lubrication, the emotional haze with which our nostalgic memories are affixed to, or one thousand and one other purposes. Thus: musicians release albums, and are encouraged to do ever thus if they want to justify their existence. Only the most brave (or foolish) artist, washing upon the shores of stardom and success, would dare riot against this truism; so goes the myth of Irish rock unit My Bloody Valentine, who this past weekend broke a nearly 22 year gap of silence with the self-release this past Saturday night of their follow-up to their much-revered 1991 classic, Loveless.
The myth of My Bloody Valentine is made up of three primary components: 1) The band is the handiwork of resident genius, guitarist, singer and songwriter Kevin Shields; 2) The onstage volume of the band rivalled the loudest Manowar setup in terms of sheer teeth-rattling dB-overage; and 3) This Loveless follow-up, long rumored, would never, ever come to fruition. The resulting album, the diminutively-titled m b v, then, literally boggles one’s sense of reality just by existing. It’s like if Lucy let Charlie Brown kick the football-- listening to m b v, you still find yourself wincing, as if you are still hearing reports of how rad the next album is going to be, knowing that it will never actually exist. And yet it does.
The band’s mythology is borne of the inherent romanticism of the genre commonly known as “shoegaze”-- young people making music that will swoon with the power of a thousand hearts. At its heart, most shoegaze is music made by groups with a working knowledge of engaging a footpedal switch and little else, yet Shoegaze Nation has always had the ability to take this music and fill it with their own hopes and dreams; gauzy and aethereal songs with no noticeable hook or tune can easily swallow up your feelings if you let them. This practice is indebted to the legacy of Loveless, a record awash is not just distortion, but a hazy lilt that one can so easily get lost in.
Anyone who loves Loveless can so easily remember what it was like getting snared in its trap; for me, I can remember picking up the cassette in 1992 and, snapping it into my Walkmen, thinking that I had a defective copy. This was not a unique assumption of Loveless consumers, as the record’s warped sonics made any room sound like it was melting. Listen, if you will, to the opening sounds of, say, “To Here Knows When”, and attempt to figure out how this kind of music was made in the first place. How was this recorded or written? Was it supposed to sound like this, or was it an accident? What words are we hearing? What is the intentionality of this strange music?
Loveless, then, above all, was a sonic experience. Seen this way, it is easy to understand how, when the record became a critical favorite, Kevin Shields allowed doubt to creep into his creative process, forever tinkering with his next record in such a way that it would never be suitable for release. News of the follow-up to Loveless was spread within months of the album’s release, as the band trotted through a successful tour of small clubs throughout America in 1992 with Dinosaur Jr; but then months turned into years, and then years turned into decades. “The follow-up to Loveless” became a thing, a joke, a sick emblem of the way that reality was not as good as fantasy and hope.
Which, really, only compounded the romantic notion behind the band and their music. As we all know, the best music ever is the music that you haven’t heard yet, but hope to hear. If you love a record the way you love Loveless, then imagining the follow-up opens your mind to an image of what must only be The Perfect Music: if Loveless had passages of otherworldly grace, this record was going to top that times ten; if Loveless had stomping distorted bliss, this next record would crush you into dust with but a flick of its massive shoegaze finger; and if Loveless had the ability to make your heart shudder with inchoate emotion, the followup was going to melt you down and ice you off until all your longings had been fulfilled in one hazy blur.
We all know, though, that it never works out that way, which is why, in part, the most anticipated albums of all time don’t tend to line up with the greatest albums of all time. Creating music legend is a process not unlike fossil fuels forming in the ground: the product is laid down in spirited form, and then over an immense amount of time, the pile up and pressure of existence crushes that matter into a precious commodity waiting to be exploited by a future society. You can’t just lay an album down on the ground and expect it to be Loveless, right? Especially when the real thing already exists, and we’re all powering our post-punk existence off of its fumes.
Loveless and the MBV mythology is essentially a cargo cult: a mysterious package was dropped off by unexplainable higher beings a long time ago, and we have spent the ensuing 22 years preparing for the return. In the Pacific islands following WWII, the close of military bases signalled the end of air shipments; in the contactless void, natives began fashioning landing strips, airplanes and radio equipment out of straw in hopes that it would draw the mysterious godlike entities back. This type of object fetishism is sometimes referred to as sympathetic magic, a trait often assigned to primitive cultures who ascribe religious importance to sacred objects, and furthermore view a transference of power when one is in physical contact with magical objects. There are some who hypothesize that cave paintings, like the famous bulls on the walls of Lascaux, were done by Cro-Magnon shamans in a trance state to draw power from the cave’s darky murk.
We in the modern day similarly attempt to transfer magical properties via sacred objects, which as recently as the late 90s were called “records”; it is a practice that is still going as a frenetic cult, with vinyl fetishists channelling spirits through contact with 180 grams of black circular tar. In the case of My Bloody Valentine, however, the cargo cult mentality meant that, in the band’s absence, it was permissible to recreate the sound of the band in an attempt to bring them back to our lives, to force their airplane to rise over the watery horizon. In the ensuing decades, all manners of MBV-y skronk has been conceived-- so thoroughly has the carcass of Loveless been picked that what once seemed so sonically startling back in ‘91 is scarcely noteworthy now. Any chimp can pick up a guitar and a few boutique effects pedals and go wild-- or perhaps even get the whole thing done without a guitar or pedals via the magic of a laptop and some free software.
That’s kind of the feeling one gets when you listen to m b v -- it is a perfectly My Bloody Valentine-sounding record, but it also is missing the magic of Loveless. m b v is a record that was made over a two-decade-long period, and it isn’t clear what on the record was worked up last week vs. what are sounds that date back to the mid-90s. Loveless, of course, had a famously laborious creation as well, burning through so much studio time that it practically bankrupted MBV’s British label Creation. Loveless is as far from an organic-sounding album as one can get: the drums are all triggers, replacing the trap play of Colm Ó Cíosóig with completely synthetic sounds; the voices are layers upon layers upon layers of treated overdubs; and the guitar production is pretty much the opposite of the raw sound favored by most rock guitarists. Loveless was influential in that it ushered in an era of ultra-condensed overdubbed guitar rock, with Smashing Pumpkins (and later the low-tuned numetal of the late 90s) churning out product that had the aural consistency of margarine.
There was, of course, a world of difference between the live My Bloody Valentine animal and what you heard on Loveless; the album is masterful, but also has a somewhat neutered effect. Live, the band was operating under an almost formalistic fascination with the effects of sustained volume on a mass audience, as they stretched the temporary noise-break in the song “You Made Me Realize” into a sometimes-half-hour-or-longer experiment in terror. Here’s Shields in 2005 describing the audience reaction to MBV’s noise assault:
Usually people would experience a type of sensory deprivation, and they would lose the sense of time. It would force them to be in the moment, and since people don’t usually get to experience that, there’d be a sense of elation. There would be a feeling of, “Wow, that was really weird, I don’t know what happened, but I suddenly heard this symphony….” Because it was such a huge noise with so much texture to it, it allowed people to imagine anything. Like when you hypnotize somebody, and nothing becomes something. That was what the whole purpose became. 1/3 of the audience would always think it was really shit, and try to leave, or get as far away as they could, and the other 2/3 really liked it. One time half the audience tried to leave, and it caused mild panic because they all tried to leave at once and got stuck at the door and got crushed. Then a whole gang of them came back towards the stage and tried to get us because they were so angry that they couldn’t get out. Like a village mob or something.
You don’t hear this on Loveless, and you certainly don’t hear it on m b v either, which is part of what’s so perverse about the endlessly-awaiting-the-new-MBV-album phenomenon: no recording could ever live up to that sort of transformative experience. When I saw them live in 1992, they were the loudest thing I had ever seen, and I loved it; they played my college town of Charlottesville, Virginia and absolutely levelled the place. A bunch of Richmond rave kids packed the tiny venue, Trax, and most of the audience seemed on ecstasy when the band lurched into the noise section of “You Made Me Realize”; as the set ended, most of the audience was on the floor, half-clothed and writhing. Everyone around me had a dazed look as if they had just witnessed either a miracle or a horrible traffic accident. This being the early 90s, Dinosaur Jr was on next and proceeded to play just as loud a set.
The loudness thing was, in retrospect, probably destructive to the psyche of the band, and the key to its early ruination. Unless your band is Jucifer, extreme volume for its own sake isn’t really sustainable, and tends to attract attention away from your songcraft and subtlety. m b v sort of attempts to have it both ways, sounding raw in ways that Loveless doesn’t, but also being sparse and pensive in a manner that is at odds with the reputation of The Loudest Band In The World. m b v, ultimately, is just a record, a document, a footnote to a cemented legacy that will probably stand aside The Weirdness and Chinese Democracy in the pantheon of long-awaited albums eventually released by long-dormant acts. Worse, one can’t help but feel that the band’s cargo cult forced this record into existence; surely, had the legacy of MBV not blossomed in the wake of the band’s dissolution, Shields would have been content to do musical odd jobs, leaving the gaping sores of MBV’s audio record unpicked. With this album, it can be debated, those sores are ripped open for everyone to hear.
But musical acts are not museum pieces and perfection is an illusion, a fiction overlayed on reality by those who require tidiness in their rock history. My Bloody Valentine were, in their prime, both intimidatingly awesome and staggeringly inept, and both properties make the band the beloved object that they remain to this day. m b v, then, is all of the following: seminal, powerful, disappointing, effete, crushing, complex, tedious, half-assed, gorgeous, enormously satisfying, endlessly frustrating. It is either a record noticed by a few people as it arrived on the Internet on a Saturday night while the rest of the nation was gearing up for the Super Bowl, or a significant continuation of the legacy of one of the most enduring acts in rock history. It can be seen as a last-gasp cash grab by a band looking to get a few quid before the entire music industrial complex goes up in flames, or a defiant stand by one of the most sonically individual voices in modern music. In America right now, the number one single is a self-released track by an independent hitherto unknown artist-- perhaps in at least a small way, MBV’s stealth guerilla tactic is an acknowledgement that the world has changed while they were dormant, and the time is right for some fuzzed static as a beacon in the dark.