So I had a plan for this week’s column.
Nothing special, nothing out of the ordinary. I was going to start by praising the new Eels album, Wonderful, Glorious, then move on to a more guarded yet still positive review of Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse, and close with my reservations over the new Local Natives LP, Hummingbird. I doubt it would have been a classic, not one for the ages, but it would have been solid and entertaining. And maybe next week, I’ll actually write that column.
But not this week. Because on Saturday, a miracle happened.
After 21 years of promises and prevarications, My Bloody Valentine finally released their third album. And they did it in the most nonchalant way possible. The Facebook post announcing the record could not have been more understated: “We are preparing to go live with the new album/website this evening. We will make an announcement as soon as it’s up.” A couple hours later, that announcement came: “The album is now live on www.mybloodyvalentine.org.” That’s it. That’s how they broke two decades of silence. No fanfare, not even a few days of buildup to get us ready.
Oh, MBV mastermind Kevin Shields had been talking about a new record for half a year. But anyone who lived through the past two decades of baseless assurances from Shields no doubt tossed those comments aside, waiting to see if anything truly materialized. For a whole generation of fans, the new My Bloody Valentine album was like SMiLE, or Chinese Democracy – an album we never thought we’d see, no matter what Shields said. In fact, it just grew funnier when SMiLE actually came out, and then Chinese Democracy followed suit.
“We’re working on it,” Shields would say in yet another interview.
“We’ll believe it when we see it,” we all said in response. “It’s not that we don’t believe you, but… actually, it is that we don’t believe you.”
So the sudden appearance of a new nine-track My Bloody Valentine album, on sale the same night it was announced, was genuinely shocking. I still can barely believe it. The band clearly underestimated the impact a new MBV album would have – minutes after the album appeared, the band’s site went down, crushed by the onslaught of hungry fans. It took me about three hours of hitting “refresh” again and again to finally make my way in, reminding myself that last time My Bloody Valentine put out a record, this technology was unheard of.
In fact, within seconds of paying my money, I was listening to the album, something Shields could not have imagined last time he released something into the world. The reaction from his fans across the globe was immediate, documented on Facebook and Twitter and a million blogs. That must have been gratifying, a whole new experience for Shields and company. Saturday night (and Sunday morning) was an outpouring of love for a band and a sound that had been away too long. The new My Bloody Valentine album actually exists. It’s a bona fide miracle.
* * * * *
When I first heard Loveless, My Bloody Valentine’s undeniably classic sophomore album, I hated it.
I was 17, and my good friend Chris L’Etoile played it for me, barely able to contain his excitement. And I just stared dumbfounded at the stereo system, unable to process what I was hearing. It didn’t sound intriguing or mysterious or fascinating to me, it just sounded wrong, as if it had been mixed incorrectly. The vocals were too low and indistinct, the guitars too high and overpowering, the drums too far back and drowned out. And then came “To Here Knows When,” that insane smear of a track, and I just couldn’t do it. Music was not supposed to sound like this.
I can’t remember when I started appreciating, and then loving Loveless. It still sounds wrong – it’s still a musical atmosphere I need to acclimate to – but once I’m in, breathing the album’s air, it’s an experience unlike any other. Loveless still sounds like no other record ever made, despite its influence spreading like tendrils through the ensuing two decades. It takes multiple listens to pinpoint the melodies under the din, but once you find them, they’re like little treasures. Shields and Bilinda Butcher offer up angelic harmonies, holding down an oasis of beauty while the storm rages around them. Sometimes you can barely hear them, but that just makes the times you can more special.
Someone once described My Bloody Valentine’s music as the most beautiful songs in the world, played on lawnmowers. That’s not bad, although it’s exaggerated and simplified. One of the joys of listening to Loveless is trying to figure out just how Shields created these sounds. He twists five or six guitar parts into knots, then bombards them with effects, to the point where I’m left thinking, “I know these are guitars, but I have no idea what he did to turn them into this.”
I can truly understand why it took so long to follow up an album like Loveless. I could also have understood never following it up at all. That the album has taken such hold, has become so beloved, was surely a surprise to Shields, and I’m certain he felt like he could never escape its shadow. Very few albums like it exist – it’s uncompromised and uncompromising, and yet still justly revered by virtually all who have heard it. And the longer Shields waited, the more Loveless grew in stature, until following it up must have seemed impossible.
That he did it anyway, that he finally stopped tinkering with his material and let it fly free, is remarkable. That he managed to create a new work that can stand with the old, while never once trying to outdo it, is nothing less than astounding.
* * * * *
The new My Bloody Valentine album has a very simple title: m b v.
That’s right, the band’s initials, printed in lower case with spaces between the letters. It’s almost pretentiously unassuming, and taken at face value, another sign that the band has no idea of its own influence, or of how much anticipation awaits this new record. The genius of this album can be found in that title – it feels like just another My Bloody Valentine album, as if the band has released a new collection every couple of years since 1991. Even the cover is simple, just a blue blotch with purple lettering.
That attitude extends to the sound. Had this come out in 1993 or 1994, I expect it would have been greeted with nodding heads – this is so clearly the next chapter in the band’s evolution. It’s so obviously what happens next. The record opens with three tracks that echo – but do not attempt to surpass – the sound of Loveless, but as it progresses from there, it takes you by the hand into uncharted waters, into new sounds and shapes. By the end, you’re disoriented, but looking around, you know how you got to where you are.
Noel Murray, a writer for the AV Club, posited that m b v is a trio of three-song suites, and that helps explain it as well as anything. You have the Loveless suite, the pretty suite, and the batshit suite. Placing the familiar-sounding material up front makes it easier to follow Shields and company down the rabbit hole in the record’s final third. But even the first three tracks make it plain that we are not listening to Loveless redux. On Loveless, Shields went for sensory overload, layering track after track into a massive whole. On m b v, he contents himself with only a few tracks per song, but distorts and twists them beyond recognition.
Even the opening is a study in contrasts. Where “Only Shallow” kicked in with a now-famous drum intro, “She Found Now” shudders into frame, quivering, drumless yet thick enough to swallow you whole. Shields’ voice gently wafts in, submerged beneath the waves of distortion. It’s probably the most epic-sounding piece of soothing near-ambience I’ve ever heard, and it continues exactly like that, lilting melody surrounded by weighty, watery noise, for five minutes. And no, I can’t make out any of the lyrics either.
Both “Only Tomorrow” and “Who Sees You” are MBV in rock band mode. Of course, this means they sound like no other rock band on the planet. Many have tried to imitate Shields’ guitar sound, on full display here, but none have quite managed it, and it’s so good to hear the original article again. “Only Tomorrow” gives us our first Bilinda Butcher lead vocal, and at several points she takes a flying, wordless leap for the sky, and it’s thrilling. The distorted-beyond-belief guitar almost sounds like it’s out of control, but Shields pulls it off, even delivering a three-minute semi-solo. And “Who Sees You” finds Shields messing with the pitch of his guitar again, making it sound woozy and slightly off. It’ll make your head spin and your fillings hurt. Everything about this song sounds off kilter – it’s the most Loveless thing here.
But then? “Is This and Yes” signals an odd left turn. It’s entirely organ, voice and subtle (almost buried) percussion, and it’s ethereal and gorgeous. Even with such spare instrumentation, Butcher’s vocals are still submerged and indistinct, almost dreamlike. I’ve never heard a My Bloody Valentine song (or any other song) like it. “If I Am” is more conventional, but still pretty, Shields’ guitar sounding like a broken washing machine behind Colm O’Ciosoig’s rolling drums. This could almost be a pop song, if Shields would let it.
That makes the next track, “New You,” even more stunning. Because this one is a pop song, right down to its pulsing, danceable bass line. There are drum breaks, there’s a chorus, the guitars are rhythmic and mixed into the tune, Butcher’s voice is up front enough to make out words. On a My Bloody Valentine album, the most conventional song just sounds… odd. It also sounds terrific – the tune ends with blissful doo-doo-doos, and they’re so warm and inviting that you could almost – almost – imagine this song on the radio.
But that devilish trickster Kevin Shields is just lulling you into a false sense of complacency. The final three tracks are the craziest things the man has ever released, and the most riveting pieces on this album. “In Another Way” crashes in on a thunderous drum beat, guitars clashing with what sounds like a bagpipe sample, everything colliding with everything else, and yet still making sense. The melody takes a few listens to come to terms with, but it’s awesome, constantly shifting and moving about. The song’s extended instrumental playout is both majestic and insane – just what are those noises Shields is making with his guitar, and how did he make them?
“Nothing Is” remains a mystery to me. It’s three and a half minutes of repetitive, endless, crushing noise, charging forth on a drum beat so industrial that you’ll almost think you’re listening to a Ministry outtake. The only variation is in volume, as the drums get louder partway through. I spent this track waiting for it to explode or collapse into something else, and it never does – it’s just tension with no release. But the final tune, “Wonder 2,” provides all that release and more. It’s the most physically disorienting thing MBV has ever put to tape, frenzied guitar and organ fighting it out and then making love atop furious, jungle-style breakbeats while a squadron of fighter jets buzzes the studio. Yes, there’s a hummable melody. Yes, it’s impossible to hear on first listen. I heard “Wonder 2” for the first time while driving, and it’s so dizzying that I nearly ended up in the river.
And just like that, boom, it’s over. After more than 21 years, it’s a very quick 46 minutes. But it’s an amazing one, at once familiar and forward-looking, willing to take a beloved sonic template and mold it into new shapes. Shields has once again made an album unlike any other I’ve encountered, and he’s mapped out the way forward for a band I never thought I’d hear again. The fact that this album exists at all is kind of surreal, but the fact that it’s a worthy successor to Loveless, and a terrific piece of work in its own right, is nothing short of incredible.
Here’s how I know Shields and company did well. They took more than two decades to follow up a revered, classic record, and no one’s complaining about the final result. Everyone’s happy. m b v has been remarkably well received, and I haven’t read a single grousing sentiment. Beyond my own satisfaction with the album, it’s gratifying to see how welcome it has been in the lives of those who waited so long for it. And now I’m hearing that an EP could follow within a few months? Just amazing.
How wonderful would it be if My Bloody Valentine settled into a groove now? If they began releasing a great new album every two years or so, to the point where people expect it? Now that Shields has shrugged off the weight of Loveless, it could happen. But even if it doesn’t, we have at least one more My Bloody Valentine album than I ever thought we’d have. I’m blown away by m b v – both its existence and its quality. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s a miracle.
See you in line Tuesday morning.