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Sunday, January 20, 2019

My Bloody Valentine: Isn't Anything


1) Soft As Snow; 2) Lose My Breath; 3) Cupid Come; 4) (When You Wake) Youʼre Still In A Dream; 5) No More Sorry; 6) All I Need; 7) Feed Me With Your Kiss; 8) Sueisfine; 9) Several Girls Galore; 10) You Never Should; 11) Nothing Much To Lose; 12) I Can See It (But I Canʼt Feel It).

General verdict: The band has finally found its fabulous signature sound, but still seems a bit unsure whether to fully rely on it; too many vestiges of generic indie rock left on the tracks.

Although My Bloody Valentineʼs proper debut LP is frequently described as a pioneering effort in the history of «shoegazing», I would say that any such description would be selling Isnʼt Anything way too short. Technically, of course, Shields and Co. were shoegazers, what with the heavy use of guitar pedals to weave their mesmerizing atmosphere. But their own roots lay at least partially in avantgarde noisemaking, and by linking those to elements of sonic psychedelia and pop songwriting, by the end of 1988 they had worked out a kind of sound that was all their own and nobody elseʼs — partly because nobody else could exactly work out what the hell Shields was doing, and partly because it would take pretty big balls to create this kind of sound even if you knew how to do it properly.

The biggest flaw of Isnʼt Anything is that it isnʼt Loveless. In a couple more years, the band would whittle that formula down to absolute perfection and push it as far as it could go without producing completely unlistenable results. Isnʼt Anything, in comparison, still sounds like a transitional album — a compromise between relentless experimentation and more traditional indie folk-rock. One neednʼt go further than compare the beginnings of each record: a very similar powerful drum beat opens both ʽSoft As Snowʼ and ʽOnly Shallowʼ, but where the latter explodes almost immediately in a wall-of-sound onslaught where all the instruments and vocals diffuse into one another, ʽSoft As Snowʼ employs a far subtler and sparser approach — first you get a sneaky funky bassline, then the guitar arrives in brief outbursts of fluttering, ghost­wailing chords, and the sonic space is sufficiently quiet and silent to actually make out the words that Kevin is singing. And he is actually singing a fairly simple folk-pop melody, not unlike the kind you could easily encounter on a Bob Dylan or even a James Taylor record — it is just that the guitar behind it is so freaky and ghostly that you will probably not be able concentrate on the sources of that vocal part anyway.

Since the lyrics are more clearly audible throughout the album than they would be on Loveless, it becomes clear pretty soon that Isnʼt Anything is really just a collection of love songs — with the added benefit of a radically new way to present the same age-old emotions. And in Bilinda Butcher, Shields has found here the perfect partner: with her vocals now being an essential part of the bandʼs sound, Kevin and Bilinda now play the parts of star-crossʼd lovers, acting out very Romeo-and-Juliettan fantasies of union, separation, longing, yearning, bliss, and despair. The old goth elements can still be seen in tracks that focus more closely on the elements of separations and farewells, but Isnʼt Anything transcends and merges the borders of happy optimism and tragic pessimism — sometimes within the confines of the same track. This all might seem quite trivial when I mention it, but it is important to mention that Isnʼt Anything makes perfect sense, that it is not just an album where some pretentious indie guy decided to torture our ears with thirty minutes of guitar pedals.

Given that all great pop music goes back to The Beatles one way or another (well, thatʼs life, I canʼt really do anything about it), it would make sense to note a very specific connection on one of the albumʼs key tracks, ʽNo More Sorryʼ — the only song here that does not have a steady rhythm track, but instead plays out as a sort of grand resolution to some major theme, stuck in an endless loop of tremolos and crescendos, over which Bilinda half-whispers, half-prays to her other who "loved me black and blue", a line after which I always want to hear "Iʼd love to turn you on", but get "no more sorry" instead. Indeed, here and elsewhere My Bloody Valentine go for the same cosmic combination of love, beauty, and tragedy that was so perfectly captured on ʽA Day In The Lifeʼ — and, in a way, those MBV records were the Sgt. Pepper-level equivalents of late Eightiesʼ / early Ninetiesʼ psychedelia, even with the music on the «indie level» of recording and production (it is interesting to speculate whether the results may have been more or less impressive with a seasoned producer like George Martin, but certainly they would have taken away from the lo-fi rawness that set the record so far apart from the mainstream).

That said, quite a few songs on Isnʼt Anything still sound a bit too close to generic indie-rock. Something like ʽYou Never Shouldʼ, for instance, would have been completely out of place on Loveless: too fast, too much ordinary guitar distortion, too much emphasis on the weakness of Kevinʼs voice when he draws out those vowels, and not enough production wizardry to redeem all these defects. And this is a song that shares the same disc space with ʽAll I Needʼ, a barrage of heavenly noise where it takes several listens to begin to discern the melody and a few more to realize that this is almost Brian Wilson-level shit, only covered in so many layers of distortion, flanging, pedaling, whatever, that you might have to be lying in a coma in order to perceive it the way it was probably intended to be perceived.

It is this uneven nature of the songs and the production that ultimately mars the general effect. At their best, My Bloody Valentine should really be taken wholesome, without bothering too much about appreciating the individual melodies — this is the way Loveless works — but there are too many jarring transitions from stuck-in-the-past to the-future-is-now on this record to make it flow as smoothly as the bandʼs masterpiece. While I still enjoy most of the albumʼs short duration, I do not truly have much use for it — although I do think that ʽNo More Sorryʼ, if taken out of this context and thrown on as a bonus track at the end of Loveless, would have added the perfect finishing touch to that record. 


  1. A very innovative band with two excellent albums. Almost ignored by the mass but highly regarded by other artists like David Bowie and Robert Smith. I believe one of their tricks was to record the echo produced by each chord or note and use them for the final edit instead of the original guitar sounds.

  2. I went see them way back when (early 90s) and wasn't impressed. to be fair, I had really gone to see the warm up act Straitjacket Fits who blew the main act off the stage.

  3. Greetings from a long-time reader and first-time commenter! First and foremost, thank you so much for your many years of thoughtful and personal music critique. Considering how demanding your professional work undoubtedly is, I appreciate the time and care you've put into this side venture.

    Secondly, it's a treat to see more obscure acts get attention on this blog, and it feels surreal to see you cover bands like MBV (a favorite of mine) after how classic-rock-centric your old site was in nature.

    Lastly, the alphabetical feat seems crazy in scope, so I hope things don't become a chore over time. Hopefully, featuring bands out of sequence (like here) when they are of personal interest will help with the process.

    Simply put, I look forward to more! :)

    Warm regards,

    Some Dude in Ohio

    1. Thank you! Technically speaking, at this point MBV themselves are as classic rock as it gets.

  4. I like the first ~five tracks on this album a lot. Believe it or not, but Cupid Come is an amazingly good indie rock song that gets stuck in my head all the time, demonstrating that MBV were capable of songwriting.

  5. Although 'Feed me with your kiss' may be one of the songs you refer to as 'too close to generic indie-rock' and Kevin's vocals could've been better, this song is an absolute MBV classic that deserves at least a mention in the review for that pounding bass riff in the breaks.
    During live concerts this is an instant fan favorite, with that bass pounding even more forcefully and the crowd having a short moment to actually discern anything else than ethereal feedback at 150db.

  6. Awww man, I love this one almost as much as "Loveless"...they're almost all great catchy noisy indie-rock songs to my ears, often of a very sassy, Sonic Youth-ish nature. "Sueisfine"....suicide! BZZzzZZzZZZZzzZZZZNZNZNZNZNZNNNZZNN!!! You didn't get into that moment? Or "Lose My Breath," utterly beautiful folkdrone like being lost in some dead rainy woods? Or the hellish distortion at the beginning of "Several Girls Galore"? I love this whole album to pieces, although it mostly ISN'T "shoegaze," really.

    1. Points for passion, Billdude, but I think that if I want Sonic Youth-ish nature I'll go to Sonic Youth directly. I do not think MBV properly hit their stride before they learned how to make their distortion all slithering and tender. This one has a more of a "you really had to be there" kind of nature.