Saturday, March 1, 2008
Artist: My Bloody Valentine
Release Date: November 1991
Label: Creation [UK], Sire/Warner Bros. [US]
Producers: Kevin Shields, with Colm O’Closoig
Engineered and assisted by: Kevin Shields, Alan Moulder, and Anjali Dutt, with Nick Addison, Darren Allison, Harold Burgon, Adrian Bushby, Tony Falter, Guy Fixsen, Pascale Giovetto, Dick Meaney, Colm O’Closoig, Hugh Price, Nick Robbins, Nick Savage, Charles Steel, Ingo Vauk, and Andy Wilkinson
"I just stopped making records myself, and I suppose that must just seem weird to people. 'Why'd you do that?' The answer is, it wasn't as good [as Loveless]. And I always promised myself I'd never do that, put out a worse record.”
- Kevin Shields, on why he hasn’t made an album since 1991
"[My Bloody Valentine] was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us, and their album Loveless is certainly one of my all-time three favourite records. It's the sound of someone [Shields] who is so driven that they're demented.”
- Robert Smith of The Cure
Not that I would position myself as a seasoned veteran or expert in the field quite yet, but the beginner’s tactics of writing about music usually involve stringing flowery adjectives together to describe the properties of a plastic disc. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless is the kind of album that has demanded only the best in vocabulary over the last sixteen years. To give you an idea of the greatness that lies within this masterpiece, the following words have been cherry-picked from various reviews and retrospectives on the album: ambitious, avant-garde, balanced, beautiful, bent, breathy, calm, catchy, cavernous, challenging, classic, commanding, complex, creative, decadent, defiant, disorienting, distorted, diverse, dominating, dreamy, droning, druggy, dysfunctional, emotional, ethereal, excellent, experimental, extreme, fantastic, fiery, foggy, forward-looking, fractured, fragile, frantic, fuzzy, gentle, harmonic, harsh, immediate, influential, inimitable, innovative, inspiring, intense, intimate, inventive, jagged, layered, loud, lush, magical, masterful, melodic, memorable, mighty, mind-altering, modern, moody, noisy, obscure, peerless, pioneering, pretty, promising, psychedelic, pulverizing, real, remarkable, rewarding, roaring, self-assured, sensual, sexual, soft, spirited, strange, strong, stylish, surging, sweet, swirling, symphonic, tangible, textured, thick, trippy, undulating, unique, uplifting, vast, venerable, voluptuous, warped, weightless, and wonderful. Though every one is applicable, despite some being contradictory, I’d probably just go with ‘perfect’.
Granted, I said that those words were to give you an idea. With an album like Loveless, it’s hard to describe why it’s so great. I can tell you about it, but that doesn’t really communicate how it feels, how it forces your mind and body to react. But I’m going to try and touch on both. The background is fairly simple and well-known to those that care to know it, and yet still reads like a legend. My Bloody Valentine started as an Indie Rock band in the UK in the mid 80’s, working out the kinks of their sound, somewhere in the soup between 60’s garage psychedelia and the dissonance of Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth and, more so, The Jesus & Mary Chain. In 1988, they released the great Isn’t Anything, which over the years has become a pretty respected minor classic in its own right. But that album, well, it was tangible, and I mean that there were other bands that could be referred to as MBV’s peers and contemporaries; it wouldn’t stay that way for long though. Between 1988 and the release of Loveless at the end of 1991, so much in music happened to change the environment for audience-challenging music that didn’t conform to the Pop charts. Besides the ascension of the Alternative bands in America, and the emerging rave scene, a heady blur of Rock bands were taking hold in the UK, dubbed “Shoegazing” by the music press. The term has been explained quite logically – when these bands played live, they just stood there staring at their shoes; of course, the press wanted to make the assumption that they had some sort of anti-fame stance, but really it was because either it was too dark or they were too high to see the large arsenal of guitar effects pedals, which made their music possible, on the ground in front of them. My Bloody Valentine and Isn’t Anything had become early signposts for this new sound, and during MBV’s stay in the studio, the mini-movement was lead primarily by the band Ride, and other acts like Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, Curve, and later Slowdive.
Loveless shattered the genre’s constraints, leapfrogging pretty much every British guitar band at the time, and laying down the gauntlet to the whole Rock world; the hot new things in Seattle may have put the underground on MTV, but they weren’t pushing music like this. At least that’s what the press and the fans said. But I doubt that My Bloody Valentine had that sort of impact in mind at the onset. In order to fully understand the album, you’d have to be Kevin Shields. The sound of Loveless, one of the most singular sounds in all of music history, is the sound inside the MBV leader’s head. With the exception of the instrumental interlude “Touched”, which was created in full by drummer Colm O’Closoig, and the lead vocals sung by Bilinda Butcher, pretty much every noise on the album was courtesy of Rock alchemist Shields. Butcher’s guitars collected dust. Bassist Debbie Googe stayed home because it was easier for Shields to play the parts himself than to explain what he heard in his dreams. O’Closoig played live drums on only his interlude and one other song, the untouchable opening track “Only Shallow”, purportedly because of health problems; all other rhythm tracks were created by Shields, who had the drummer bang out simple patterns that he could handle playing while ill, and then Shields sampled and looped the parts he wanted. Shields angered studio owners, and got his equipment locked up. Shields drove the assistant head of his label, Creation, to a nervous breakdown and a head of gray hair at the age of 29. Shields spent two years in nineteen different studios with as many engineers (most of them didn’t do much), making an album that took thirteen days to master (most albums take one or two days), nearly bankrupting the small Creation and basically making an enemy of his label boss, Alan McGee, who dropped the band because he couldn’t see himself enduring work with Shields ever again. More important than any of these legendary twists and turns though is that Kevin Shields played the guitar.
Despite the sixty-year history of Rock & Roll, and the couple hundred-or-so “great” guitarists, there are very few moments when the essential tool of the music – the six-string electric guitar – was presented in a format which totally reinvented the way it was played. In fact, you could easily count them on two hands. The first would be jazzman Charlie Christian, and then whichever Bluesman you want to credit, Robert Johnson or whoever, with getting it all started, as well as your pick of the influential moments from the giants of rhythm guitar: Chuck Berry, Elvis sideman Scotty Moore, and James Brown’s funk slinger Jimmy Nolen. Jimi Hendrix’s debut album, Are You Experienced, would be another moment, as would the self-titled debut by Van Halen. And Loveless would also be on that shortlist, along with a couple others. The interesting thing about Kevin Shields’ place in this group, and the reason why Loveless is such a groundbreaking guitar album, is because of its sound, not how he played his instrument. Eddie Van Halen will always be famous for his lightning pull-offs & hammer-ons, but the music his band made wasn’t that different from their peers of the day, the Zeppelins, the Cheap Tricks, the Kisses. Jimi is a better comparison, the way he played with studio sound and pioneered the use of the effects, but at the same time, as far ahead as he was as a guitarist, his band did have contemporaries – Cream is most notable. And yet, he was Jimi, still the gold standard, and similarly, MBV had Ride, but Ride weren't even close. No one ever talks about the way that Kevin Shields plays. They talk about how he sounds. I’ve done it throughout this project; I’ve compared probably a dozen artists on this list to the My Bloody Valentine “sound” (and it could've been more), because it’s simply unavoidable. It’s like saying that any lush, summery pop song with harmonies sounds like the Beach Boys, or any bluesy hard rock with a wailing vocal is ‘Zeppelinesque’; you can’t help it, that’s just the way of the world. And yet through all this, unless you do the research, listening to Loveless will lead you to all the wrong assumptions about Kevin Shields as a guitar architect. The common misconception, which I myself have made countless times, is that Shields’ work on this album is masterpiece of orchestrating his many effects pedals. I’ve found that this is not true, and leads me to wonder whether maybe his playing is what we all should’ve been paying attention to. Shields maintains that he used very little in the way of direct effects, instead preferring to process and tweak things after the fact through studio equipment. He insists that most of the warped feeling of his guitar playing is due his style of “Glide guitar”, his practice of using the tremolo bar when he plays, bending the tone and tuning as he goes. It gives the sound a wavering feel, like the blurry blacktop in the distance on a hot day. Hearing the album, you’d think there are dozens of tracks packed with guitars, but Shields swears that it’s a lot more simple than people think, presumably a result of merely turning up the volume to ear-splitting volumes. In fact, if you’re listening to this album with the volume turned down, then you might as well not listen at all. This is my test when I play it in the car: I press play, start talking to myself, and when I can’t hear myself anymore, I know it’s as loud as the band intended (they had take a break in recording due to tinnitus).
MBV stuck around in the public consciousness during the recording of Loveless by releasing the Glider EP (named after Shields’ playing style), which featured the seven-minute “Soon”, the world’s first taste of what would be their next album. Listening to it now, “Soon” is much cleaner and sparkling than the rest of Loveless, vocals a little more up front, but no less indecipherable, featuring a spry, rave-friendly breakbeat and a little of that ringing guitar found on Ride’s classic slice of Indie Pop, “Vapour Trail”. The guitars initially sound a bit more conventional, until they can’t contain themselves, and burst forth with the bristling fuzz of distortion. Amounting to the next logical step from The Smiths’ epochal “How Soon Is Now”, “Soon” cranked the guitars even further into overdrive, ramming into distant singers like bumper cars, looped, echoed, panned, and cycling over themselves. When the album was released, it was clear that “Soon” was just the beginning, though some songs follow, somewhat conventionally, the evolution of the Loveless sound. To expose “When You Sleep” as the most straight-forward Rock song after “Soon”, you just have to look at how it’s been considered over the years. Superdrag borrowed its rhythm riff for their “Destination: Ursa Major”, and Greg Dulli’s Twilight Singers covered it on the tour to support their She Loves You album of covers (though, unfortunately, it wasn’t included on the album). “Come In Alone” begins the second half of the album with molasses thunder, crashing like tumultuous waves on the rock of Rock – or whatever you would call this music – flashing synths and slashing guitars fending off Shields’ sweet, boyish voice.
When “Only Shallow” erupts in your eardrums for the first time, you’re likely to know the answer to the universe. All you get is a count of four. Four snare shots to signal the attack. The guitars sound like the apocalypse, or at least first time you saw Jurassic Park, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex roared through the theater surround sound speaker system, shaking your ribcage to the core, while the drums lumber just like that jeep chase. One of the great album openers of the 90’s, the song remains the best encapsulation of MBV’s greatness, screaming sheets of noise throwing shapes across your brain. Like virtually all of their songs, it doesn’t even matter what the lyrics are – possibly something about sleeping or some double entendre about vaginas, who knows really – it just matters how it moves you. I don’t mean figuratively either; the music of My Bloody Valentine is such an aural assault that you can’t help but be swayed. If it is at all possible to cross the human senses (as they say in the movie Ghostbusters, “Listen…Do you smell something?”), well then, “Only Shallow” sounds like heat exhaustion feels. It smothers the listener in an invisible cloud of stuffy hot air. And that feeling continues right through the album, with the distorted strings of “Loomer” sounding like fire burning – you know in movies when there’s an explosion in slow motion, and after the initial blast, you hear the massive growl of dozens of tongues of flame crackling as they lick the sky? Yeah, like that – rumbling like a never-ending crescendo, all pounding tribal drums with no relief of a snare, alleviated only by Bilinda Butcher’s cotton candy vocals and an undulating melody line. “What You Want” is cut from the same energetic cloth, but has the benefit of a propulsive beat. The guitars are sliced to be lean, the fat of the low end cut off and thrown in the background. An ever-present buzz creeps in from the margins, holding the vocals at bay, recalling MBV’s recent ancestors - JAMC, Sonic Youth, or Hüsker Dü - but mellowing out their punk impulses with Shields’ melodious Britpop vocal, Butcher’s background cooing, and a cascading flute-like synth line that evolves into a dreamy light show of silky tones.
Sounding like whales humping, “Touched” introduces the gorgeous “To Here Knows When”, also the featured track on the second Loveless-era companion, the Tremolo EP; the success of the EP placed its lead song in the UK Top 40, possibly the most unconventional Top 40 hit of the decade. “To Here Knows When” is Bilinda Butcher’s finest moment; again, who knows really what she’s singing about, but her voice guides the music through a dreamlike state, a rush of whirling pastel colors spinning past your mind’s eye, suggesting the most sensual of other dimensions, where all of your wildest fantasies come true. The bulging sonics of the song bleed past the lines, challenging the speakers to contain them; it has to fade out because it gets tired from exerting so much brutal beauty. Likewise, “Blown A Wish” is relentless in its cyclical splendor, flowing like water over you; it’s also the song to which the lyrics are clearest, though it’s not quite apparent if this is significant (Perusing online lyric sources, one can see that no one has figured out the words to entire album even now, though the overwhelming lyrical sentiment that fans have been able to make out is one of a troubled couple, referring to the disintegration of Shields and Butcher's relationship, hence the album title). Shields’ exquisite ballad “Sometimes” burns with the fire of hopeful love, built on a bed of purring noise, a material hum with a texture you wish you could reach out and touch. Acoustic guitars chug along as a whistling keyboard soothes you, washing away the stresses of everyday life. One of the greatest pleasures in my film-watching life is hearing this song in Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation; following the ecstatic scenes of Bob & Charlotte’s night out, they sit together in that classic shot – the tight hallways of some Tokyo karaoke parlor, in silence – and then My Bloody Valentine lands on your head, scoring their spent cab ride back to their foreign hotel, as Coppola nominates “Sometimes” for the best lullaby in the land (The film's soundtrack also marked the first time Kevin Shields had recorded new music for many years). At the center of the Loveless storm, “I Only Said” stands tall as a summation of all around it – the roaring guitars of fire, pouring over you like standing in a waterfall as your lover serenades you through the rush, while T.Rex’s circle you growling and whales fuck beautiful below you, and you float on clouds of tangible distortion, looking like steel wool but feeling as soft as a baby’s wisp of hair. Receiving the joy of Loveless is confirmation that your senses are working, that your brain is sending signals and that your third eye is open. You are an antenna, a lightning rod for experiences, immersed in the bliss of new love and crushed by one hundred broken hearts. To love Loveless is to love life.
01. “Only Shallow”
03. “Touched” [interlude]
04. “To Here Knows When”
05. “When You Sleep”
06. “I Only Said”
07. “Come In Alone”
09. “Blown A Wish”
10. “What You Want”
"Only Shallow" [video]
"To Here Knows When" [video]
as heard in Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation
"Soon" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Only Shallow" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "To Here Knows When" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "When You Sleep" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "I Only Said" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "Blown A Wish" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: "Soon" [live in London, 12.91]
- BONUS: Kevin Shields walks you through MBV and Loveless in 5 minutes [2000 interview from Irish show @last tv]