My Bloody Valentine - mbv

Arriving 22 years after their last record, My Bloody Valentine’s much-heralded third offering amazingly doesn’t disappoint.

Additional Info

9.2

ALBUM: mbv

ARTIST: My Bloody Valentine

2013

Alternative

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?”

1. She Found Now
The warmth is back. Over two decades and it only takes a few seconds to recognize the signature tremolo guitar wash of Kevin Shields and co. Bent string notes jump out to chase the melody. The song creates a feeling of an extended sleep with an electric blanket after an exhaustive day in the cold. Shields’ vocal whispers are barely there, but mix perfectly with muted drums and quarter-note bass. This is the only song rerecorded from scratch in 2012, but it’s the one that sounds most like the band’s older material. Either way, it’s a triumphant return to a sound many people didn’t know they missed so much.10.0
2. Only Tomorrow
Bilinda Butcher takes microphone duties on the second track, another that recalls the Loveless era. However, aspects slowly emerge as different than before. Her vocals are loud in the mix; Shields’ guitar sounds somehow crunchy and pillowy at once. Under the fuzz, bassist Debbie Googe keeps the complex melody afloat with her stealth and steady playing. Midway, the guitar crumbles into bitcrusher noise that sounds a lot like a dial-up modem trying to connect to the Internet (nostalgia, anyone?). Butcher’s vocals ascend like the choral arrangement in Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.” The song is weighed down by a peculiar choice: an actual audible guitar lead that goes on for the last two minutes; it’s a simple lead, and an overly long outro that may translate better in a live setting, but only works against the album’s mounted momentum here.8.5
3. Who Sees You
The wobbly guitar that runs through this song makes it feel like a soar through a carnival in the clouds. It’s another look backward at beautiful wake where m b v originated. Particularly impressive is drummer Colm O’Ciosoig’s technical fills behind a steady, louder shaker track. The highlight, however, is the fantastic use of effects over the guitar bridge—an in-and-out frequency filter that sounds like a controlled fire siren.9.0
4. Is This and Yes
A melancholy synth passage acts as the bridge between eras of the band. Lullaby wisps of Butcher’s vocals punctuate the lush soundscape, reminiscent of peeks of sun through lush clouds.8.0
5. If I Am
Clarity is not often a word used when discussing this band, but the sounds here are crisp; all instruments’ parts are audible and able to be separated from the mix. The song structure is vaguely reminiscent of something less abrasive on 1988’s Isn’t Anything (like “Lose My Breath), but the execution here is far more mature. The ethereal keyboard complements Butcher’s voice effortlessly and so does the strange knocking mentioned earlier. The production here pushes this track into one of the strongest the band’s ever done. It’s pitch-perfect.10.0
6. New You
Thumping bass and keys drive a catchy melody over an inoffensive tremolo guitar. The song sometimes wanders into the back alley of 90s nostalgia, complete with drum breaks that sound pulled from White Town’s “Your Woman.” Though the sliding vocals are neat, the “do-do-do” harmonies drown them with syrup; the song simmers when it should be boiling.7.0
7. In Another Way
The drums anchor this song and lend Butcher’s breathy vocals a tether to actual reality. The background noise sounds like what the inside of a supercollider may be like. The decimated sounding guitar climbs from the heap into another strange (but solid) lead, changing the mood from brash to a cheerily anthemic. An extended outro (a la “Only Tomorrow”) is fun enough, but outstays its welcome by a bit. This song is the most traditional in the album’s strange final three, but is still decidedly different than what has come before.8.0
8. Nothing Is
Everything is new. The drums and guitar create a three-beat trance that slowly amplifies for the song’s three minutes. Then, it’s over. It’s perplexing, but, strangely, powerful. There’s not a lot to latch onto, but the groove is infectious and head scratching at the same time.7.5
9. Wonder 2
A torrent of distorted drums like waves crashing on a stormy beach leads into faint organ and Butcher’s fragile vocal. There’s a distinct clashing with the frailty of the organic instruments vs. an electronic maelstrom, but it works grandly. When the panning guitar enters and climbs the melody register, it feels like the song is taking us some place special and new. The drums shift into the sound of fighter jets overhead, and the song ends. The listener is never quite carried over the threshold the song suggests, but we are offered a peek at what is beyond for the band. We’re left salivating for more all over again. Let’s hope we get another taste sooner than 2035. 8.5
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.

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