Fanboy ruminations on the new My Bloody Valentine

Pub date February 6, 2013

Here I am, listening to m b v for the umpteenth time since Saturday night, and I still can’t believe it exists. Up until last week, I had grown used to “the Loveless follow-up” as a punchline in hipster water-cooler conversation, a tall tale in the canon of guitar-rock mythology. But now, after two decades of broken promises, My Bloody Valentine’s fabled third LP is here. And I can dance to it. And it shows up on iTunes like everything else. This can’t be happening.

After he nearly bankrupted his label, striving to recreate the reverberacious sounds swirling around in his head, MBV’s guitarist and production mastermind Kevin Shields exited the studio with 1991’s seminal Loveless, an album that re-imagined the textural possibilities of guitars and vocals within the pop framework. The effect was equally seductive and menacing: a record swarming with haze and fuzz, yet with an undercurrent of Pet Sounds pop purity cutting straight down the middle. This ethereal, borderline-electronic approach to guitar-rock, and its use of androgynous, vaguely intelligible vocals as a background instrument, has spawned a thousand imitators, but no worthy successor, resulting in one of the modern era’s few truly legendary recordings.

That said, it’s hard to overstate the cultural baggage attached to m b v from the get-go. Seriously, if you’re Shields, how do you move on from what everyone from Brian Eno to Phish has embraced as the the greatest musical achievement of the ‘90s? The band’s third full-length presents several answers to that question, with a mixed bag of laid-back meanderings, abrasive left-field experiments, and a handful of vintage MBV anthems to feed that long-neglected Loveless fix.

Although it continues to open up and reveal itself with each listen, here are some observations from my first weekend with this incredibly unlikely album.

“she found now”
My Bloody Valentine’s first statement of the new millennium is a quiet, low-key one, without drums, that leaves Shields’ fuzzy, undulating guitars to support his and Bilinda Butcher’s entangled, hushed vocals. First time around, I was underwhelmed. Comebacks should start with a bang, right? After a few listens, though, it all made sense; this is the sound of Shields and Co. waking up after a two-decade hibernation, collecting their bearings, and taking a moment to reflect before getting on with the show. A poignant gesture, after 22 years of silence.

“only tomorrow”
And we’re rolling. I can’t remember the last time the band sounded this funky. Shields’ guitar has an earthly, familiar crunch to it, paring down from the otherworldly pink-noise that defined Loveless, and Colm Ó Cíosóig’s shuffly drums sound fuller, boomier, and more dynamic than ever before. Yet, it’s unmistakably MBV, from the complex, angular chord changes, to the sound of Butcher’s vocals succumbing to Shields’ towers of distortion.
“who sees you”
This is the jewel of the album, the track that delivers on all the expectations I had convinced myself were unreasonable. All of Loveless’ trademark qualities are right upfront, from the emphasis on heady, impressionistic texture, to the inextricable pop DNA at its core. The chord changes are as seductive as ever, and Shields’ guitars haven’t skipped a beat since ‘91. Most amazingly, though: we’re finally hearing a Loveless-caliber MBV song, approached with a muscular, dynamic, 21st century production sensibility. This is too good to be true.

“is this and yes”
Loveless’ brief, Final Fantasy-esque intro, “Touched” suggested an alternate direction for the band, which “is this and yes” explores in depth for the first time. Guitars are absent, and drums are minimal; the wispy synth tones coalesce with Butcher’s soft vocals to resemble the relaxed, samba-ish lilt of a Stereolab ballad. Simple and repetitive, but always engaging and never tedious, it offers a new perspective on MBV’s crafty songwriting abilities, and a nice moment of calm between thick slabs of pop/noise.

“if i am”
Relatively open and uncluttered by MBV standards, yet permeated by the band’s signature vertigo, “if i am” is a nice reminder that Shields’ aesthetic isn’t all smoke and mirrors, distortion, layering, and plain old big noises. If the two previous pop songs felt a bit formulaic and deconstructable, this track emphasizes the mystery and vagueness of MBV’s squirmy, seasick sound. Also, Shields on a wah-pedal is a nice surprise.
“new you”
The most melodic, bubbly, and downright fun song MBV has ever committed to tape, “new you” is like a window into an alternate universe, where MBV revved back up in ’96 and took the charts by storm. Recalling the work of Garbage, Chapterhouse, and other bands who carried the shoegaze-baton in more populist directions in the post-Loveless wake, it’s essentially a vintage MBV song, with all the noise peeled away. From the upfront vocals, to that irresistible synth melody, to the generous low-end that practically dares you not to dance like a fool… it’s a real treat.

“in another way”
While the first two-thirds of m b v, and all of Loveless, are largely held together by a strong harmonic undertow, “in another way” finds the band ripping that foundation out from under our feet, and playing with colder, spikier textures. The harsh, punky guitar squalls, and discordant vocals, resemble Isn’t Anything at its crudest, while the skipping, hopping drums and weirdly anthemic synths feel like an extension of their foray into dance territory on “Soon.” It’s a compelling experiment, and it’s neat to hear MBV hinting at new directions for their second act, but the lack of harmonic warmth keeps me from embracing it entirely.

“nothing is”
Ever repeat a word over and over, until it becomes a meaningless mishmash of sound? “nothing is” achieves the same sort of minor transcendence through repetition, looping a one-second stab of guitars and drums up and down a sine wave for over three minutes. It’s an easy space to get lost in, and fairly un-tedious, despite the odds. Similarly to “in another way”, though, I’m not finding a visceral connection to this one. I like it; it’s captivating; but love? Not quite.

“wonder 2”
Given the number of rock-band reunions defined by a disappointing sense of by-the-numbers conservatism, m b v’s final third sounds especially brave. “wonder 2” is the album’s boldest experiment: an uninhibited, atonal blur of a semi-pop song, laid atop a reverb-soaked drum and bass beat, and set inside that metaphorical “jet engine” that MBV fans are always talking about. Like most of their songs, it combines dissonance with pop structure. Yet, unlike the “great” ones (“Only Shallow,”“When You Sleep,” “Honey Power,” etc.), the pop warmth is missing. This one might take awhile to sink in though, as new layers of metallic noise continue to reveal themselves upon each listen.

In the long-run, m b v’s reputation will likely depend on where Shields and Co. choose to go from here. If they call it quits again, experiments like “nothing is” could ultimately be seen as vaguely disappointing, in their failure to completely justify a 22-year wait. Yet, if the band continues to create and explore, m b v’s third act in particular might wind up as another signpost on their weird, wonderful journey as an ensemble, leading to bigger rewards down the stretch.

If this is indeed the band’s closing statement, we’re incredibly fortunate to have a new handful of vintage MBV songs, like “who sees you” and “new you,” to live and love by for decades to come. At this point, m b v sounds too scattered and impulsive to compete head-to-head with Loveless’ obsessive commitment to pink noise, but were we really expecting that? The fact that in 2013, a new My Bloody Valentine album manages to reach those glorious heights, even on occasion, leaves us with so much to be thankful for.