words by DREW MALMUTH
In a recent interview Kevin Shields said that during the recording sessions for Loveless there was a three day period when he banished everybody else from the studio. “Everybody thought that I was working,” he said. But in fact he was slowly chipping the paint off of Bilinda Butcher’s pickguard with a razor blade. Apparently, he didn’t have any ideas so he simply did nothing. At the time, it was stories like this that caused Creation Records’ label head Alan McGee to have a near mental breakdown; however, it is this manic and unique obsessiveness that has made Shields one of the most influential and iconic musicians of the last 20 years.
My Bloody Valentine put out two albums and a string of EPs from 1988 to 1991 that effectively changed the conception of what rock music can sound like. The guitar sound was impossibly expansive. Its distortion melted in waves over the propulsive drums and warm, wispy vocals. While squatting in abandoned homes and experimenting with sleep deprivation the group cobbled together an output that remains one of the most imaginative in the history of indie rock. Loveless is deservedly their most acclaimed release, but that album, which is usually cited as the catalyst for shoegaze, is both a departure from and the culmination of a remarkable collection of earlier songs. Isn’t Anything and a collection of EPs show a band that was stylistically diverse, as Kevin Shields crafted pounding, mind-consuming guitar riffs (“You Made Me Realise,” “Feed Me With Your Kiss,” “How Do You Do It”), psychedelic soundscapes (“Glider”), and fuzzy pop gems (“Drive It All Over Me,” “Don’t Ask Why”). Shields was constantly experimenting, spurred on by his ego to find a sound that only he could achieve. After 22 years, he has lost neither his aural curiosity nor his innate musical genius.
Just as Loveless refined and expanded on the elements of early My Bloody Valentine, mbv draws on the past without forgoing the fierce originality that has defined the band from the outset. Was it worth the wait? Probably not. But after the album opener, “she found now,” is over all of the anger and confusion that accompanied years of cryptic interviews and false information melts away and one is simply left with a realization: this is a new My Bloody Valentine and it is excellent.
mbv is a diverse album that touches on the various different sounds that Shields helped to establish. Its 9 songs are grouped into three aesthetically distinct sections. The first portion is three songs that employ the dreamy, tidal-wave-of-distortion effect that was perfected on Loveless. These songs tend to be densely arranged yet they maintain a remarkable airiness, as Bilinda and Kevin’s tender vocals play out like a lullaby. “she found now” is an understated opener for the album; however, it feels like a natural extension from Loveless. The combination of crunchy guitar, shimmering melodies, and swaths of reverb is just as gorgeous now as it was in 1991. “she found now” is good but its follow-up, “only tomorrow,” is the album’s first potent reminder of why My Bloody Valentine inspires such unwavering reverence. Shields builds an explosive patchwork of guitar sounds that have their own distinct character while also contributing to the massive heft of the song. It’s a tune that crashes all over you. “who sees you” has a similar effect, resulting in a trio of songs that are comforting, intense, and all-together stunning.
The album then moves from its gripping opening segment into more playful, pop territory. “is this and yes” forgoes guitars in favor of a swirling combination of organ, Stereolab style synths, and indecipherable utterances. The track builds a strong sense of unease as one gets the feeling that the arrangement is building toward something but that place is never actually reached. “new you” is the most successful pop song on the record. The lyrics are bright and largely comprehensible and they play out over a warm, pulsating guitar melody. Shields’ infamous guitar playing technique (he constantly presses the tremolo bar and turns down the tone) gives the track a woozy atmosphere, a sound that Shields liked to describe as “melted.” It is this aesthetic that underlies the sound of countless bands from Slowdive to Tame Impala. Some claim that My Bloody Valentine’s sound has been improved upon by other groups, but songs like “new you” show that Shields is still uniquely gifted at crafting psychedelic pop.
Just as it seems that mbv is going to be a largely lighthearted affair the final third of the album begins and Shields’ penchant for aggressive noise arrangements comes to the fore. After the sun-drenched “new you,” “in another way” is like the stinging breeze you feel when you walk outside at night. The spastic, cyclical drum beat anchors a haunting combination of stabbing distortion and ethereal synth lines. Like much of mbv, it is a song that only feels complete when unleashed at almost intolerable volumes. The same can be said of “nothing is,” a song that gets better with every listen. It is viciously repetitive. Some will find it boring, but others will see it as a perfect encapsulation of the energy that courses through many of the band’s early EPs. The sound builds uncontrollably, with no intention of holding back or giving the listener any kind of melodic roadmap. It’s a perfect lead up to the album’s unrelenting closer, “wonder 2.” A sound that mimics a jet passing overhead pervades the track, as the massive onslaught of guitars creates the sense of being caught in a windstorm. It’s a bold yet unsurprising way for Shields to end the album. It doesn’t wrap up mbv cohesively but, rather, “wonder 2” sends the album into oblivion. Shields never wanted to make music that made sense. He simply wanted to make music that was good.
There are those who will scoff at mbv, writing it off as too little too late. It’s understandable, but I find myself wanting to believe Shields when he says that he stopped releasing music because he couldn’t make another Loveless. In an age when artists try to create as much content as possible, it seems crazy that a person as gifted as Kevin Shields could simply lose the ability to be creative. But maybe he was sincere. In that case, would we rather have a constant output of mediocre My Bloody Valentine albums or a 22 year wait and then an album like mbv? It’s hard to say. All I know is that when I downloaded the new album, put on my headphones, and closed my eyes, I was glad that Shields had taken his time. Here’s hoping we’re alive when he releases the next one. [A]
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