ARTIST: My Bloody Valentine
Let’s get it out of the way: to say that My Bloody Valentine’s return album was highly anticipated is prime indie-rock meiosis. Of course it was. Over the years (decades, even), each time Kevin Shields surfaced and casually talked about a new record, the music community salivated. As time passed with no follow-through, fervor turned to eye rolling and utterances of “yeah sure, Kev, whatever you say.” Then—without much pomp—it happened; made available through the band’s website on a cold night in February 2013. After an aggravating night refreshing the crashed download page, the world finally heard the first new collection of songs from the Irish band in twenty-two years. When we heard the familiar wash of tremolo guitar on the first track, there may have been a collective sigh of relief that could have registered on a seismic detector. Before actually enjoying the new songs, everyone had to see if m b v was Godfather III—welcomed but sapped of magic. Sometimes when original archetypes come back to life, it can be a disaster. Certain bands should just stay dead rather than reform and tarnish a legacy (see: the recent string of abysmal Pixies EPs). Thankfully, this was not the case with m b v. Not only does this album reinforce the band’s storied stature—which is a feat on its own—it is a legitimate piece of art to be considered over a longer span of time.
But m b v can’t be as good as Loveless, can it? The simple answer is not quite. A more complicated one is we’ll see. It’s impossible not to look at the new record without the comparison, as it is this humble reviewer’s opinion that Loveless is in the top five best albums of the 1990s. That record changed the entire landscape of indie-rock; it launched a thousand imitators, and though a few contemporaries were sonically close (I’m thinking of Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas and Ride’s Nowhere), the band already had the rest of the pack in the rear-view mirror. Though many have tried, nothing that has come out since sounds quite like Loveless. That’s a lot to live up to.
Like its predecessor, there’s a definite dormant quality to most of the songs on m b v. “Timeless” isn’t the right word, but there’s a hazy nostalgia here that is hard to pin down—it’s fair to employ the “ubi sunt” motif. This feeling may move the listener to ask the question: in the gap between Loveless and m b v, what band has truly been worth its salt? That’s not an easy answer, not because the quality of artists in the meantime isn’t worth our time, but because of the uniqueness of this particular band’s output. Somehow, it’s as if listening to m b v makes you forget the gap between their albums entirely; it dissolves the distance between these two distinct points. That’s powerful stuff. Ultimately, the landscape of music has changed so much—its much easier to consume and move on these days—and that’s why, at the time of this review, it’s a bit unfair to measure this album against its predecessor just yet. m b v’s reaching effect cannot yet be gauged, but the fact that the question is even considered is unexpected and impressive.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to get bogged down by the weight of a legacy that large. The ten-year period when the band was broken up coupled with the Chinese Democracy false starts of releasing new material did nothing but exasperate fans. Rumors flew that there was band members were sick or hated one another, that Shields was going through some Barton Fink-ian writer’s block. But the real question was: how could a band follow up such a precise encapsulation as Loveless? It took some time, but there’s now an answer to that question, and the most important fact is that long gestation hasn’t hurt the quality of the songs on m b v. There are several songs that could have been released in 1996 (when recording sessions for this album began) and made total sense then, yet they still sound novel nearly two decades later. Conversely, there are tracks here unlike anything the band’s put out before, and while they initially are the hardest to digest, display ambitiousness that still burns after so many years together (and apart).
m b v’s first half is very reminiscent of Loveless. “She Found Now” is a lovely opener—delicate and immersive. The song goes down easy, the sonic equivalent to a Benadryl and hot toddy on a snowy night. In case you forgot how warm the dreamy textures were (but you haven’t), the next three tracks continue reviving the landscape laid so long ago. The later half of the album distances itself from the band’s back catalogue, and showcases songs that push into new territories. A good example of this is “If I Am”, which features clearer, louder drums and an overall more present aesthetic. It’s as if the band is finally waking the listener from a twenty-two year slumber. Out of nowhere, there’s a gentle, rhythmic knocking sound that accompanies the tail end of a vocal melody. It’s a small detail—but it’s unique—and it’s always been the smallest elements that have made the band stand out (and endure). It was their meticulous nature that catapulted MBV above the heap in the early ‘90s—the band had always been about the art of the music. It’s great to see that’s not changed.
We knew already that the band was influenced by the likes of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the Beach Boys’ “Smile,” and Sonic Youth, and those influences remain ingrained here; but during m b v’s conception, Shields and drummer Colm O’Ciosoig were experimenting with drum and bass “jungle music.” It’s most apparent on the last two tracks, “Nothing Is” and “Wonder 2.” Booming house-ish drums dominate the aural spaces on top of abrasive guitars or dissonant organ noise. It’s a challenging listen for a band so acclaimed for making pretty music. The tracks are jarring, but interesting. Is that enough for a band of this stature? The trickle of m b v through our minds in the next few years will tell. But the later half of the album finds My Bloody Valentine still trying new things—circuit bending, unburied melodies and leads, trance-like drumming. It’s a far cry from the soft soundscapes of Loveless or even m b v’s early tracks. The band is not content to play within the sonic universe that it big-banged into existence, and that’s what made them great in the first place.
“What I do for you, how does it feel?”