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Saturday, January 26, 2019

My Bloody Valentine: Loveless


1) Only Shallow; 2)  Loomer; 3) Touched; 4) To Here Knows When; 5) When You Sleep; 6) I Only Said; 7) Come In Alone; 8) Sometimes; 9) Blown A Wish; 10) What You Want; 11) Soon.

General verdict: "All you need is love" as seen from the perspective of Schrödinger's cat.

[This is a slightly expanded and modified version of a review previously written for the short-lived Great Albums series.]

From a certain point of view, the year 1991 should probably be counted as the true beginning of the «modern» era in popular music — in the most natural sense of the word: «one that is still going on as of the moment of this write-up» — and My Bloody Valentineʼs Loveless, along with Nirvanaʼs Nevermind (and despite being nowhere near as popular or commercially successful), is one of the few albums that really brought that era about. After all, the 1980s had been a weird, excessful decade whose main flaw may have been in that it took its outrageous discoveries far too seriously, and asserted its love for futuristic technology and outlandish fashions way too strongly for the average human being to adopt it once and for all without criticism. A touch of counterbalancing restraint, intelligence, and even healthy cynicism were in order; and in a way, what Nirvana and the grunge bands did for the basic rock scene (namely, planted its feet back on the ground), My Bloody Valentine did for the art-rock scene.

Loveless, the bandʼs one and only masterpiece, was made at a time when the quintessential atmospheric art-rock band was probably Cocteau Twins — a great act that was not, however, much of a proper «rock» band anyway, so the challenge was understandable: could a new rock album, made at the beginning of a new decade, genuinely rock out and colorfully blow your mind at the same time, like, you know, Hendrix could a couple decades ago? And could such an album combine its magical mystical sound with enough intelligence, so that the artists do not come across as a new reincarnation of Hawkwind, and drive away listeners who have become way too demanding to accept generic starry-eyed psychedelia?..

Notoriously, the album took almost three years to complete, and is said to have cost the bandʼs label, Creation, more than 200,000 pounds (precise sum remains uncofirmed, but pretty damn impressive for a label whose highest commercial client at the time were The Jesus And Mary Chain). This is an important point to consider, especially for those of us who tend to perceive the songs as too primitive, noisy, and sloppy; and it is also indirectly (or directly) responsible for the fact that the band found it impossible to record a follow-up — not only because of the resulting financial problems, but also due to Kevin Shieldsʼ Brian Wilson complex: as the poor guy felt obliged to follow the record up with something even more mind-blowing, he ended up almost blowing his own mind to smithereens instead.

Needless to say, the complicated nature of these sessions, and the bandʼs subsequent retreat into the shadows for more than twenty years has contributed a lot to the albumʼs now legendary status. Although Loveless only reached No. 24 on the UK charts upon release, and made very little impact on the American market, its critical reputation has only grown with time — primarily because it is such a tasty choice for all sorts of mythologising scenarios. The actual influence of Loveless on musicians world-wide, I think, has been more spiritual than substantial, because the sound of Loveless is almost impossible to copy and useless to imitate — but as far as ambitious and otherworldly guitar-based soundscapes are concerned at all, it seems clear that MBV are the ancestors of any other art-rock band with «modern» guitar sound, starting with Radiohead and ending with... well, with any art-rock band that still plays art-rock guitar today, as this seems to become a relative rarity. Naturally, this does not mean that they are exclusively entitled to that kind of praise; yet I can think of no post-1991 album that would redefine, far from the first but quite likely for the last time, the whole sound of the electric guitar.

Whether you like it or not, Loveless sounds like nothing else ever produced in the music business: ever. I might go as far as to state that, in a world where the word «psychedelia» gets randomly applied to everything from The Monkees to Aphex Twin, it is Loveless that could be considered the quintessential psychedelic album of all time, despite being released more than twenty years after the decline of the original Golden Age of psychedelia. Why? Merely because I have a hard time remembering any other record which, when played loud enough in headphones, would drive me so much out of my mind — literally, not figuratively. Take my word for it: if you want to know what «dazed and confused» is without resorting to any of the health-damaging substances, Loveless will work like a charm. You may not end up falling in love with it, but if you do not feel it having a disorienting, disconcerting, chemical-level effect on you, you are probably not doing it right, or maybe you are not designed for music listening in the first place.

The basic technique behind this is simple — the glide guitar effect, already in use on Isnʼt Anything but perfected and amplified by Shields as he is now almost constantly abusing the tremolo bar while strumming the strings. Throw in the novel use of the sampler to multiply and procreate feedback; add MBVʼs now-standard approach to the vocals, delivered in gently lulling falsettos and then mixed deep below the rumbling surface — and what you get is a bunch of songs that are here, there, everywhere, and nowhere at the same time: rock musicʼs ideal answer to the quantum theory. At first, I found this frustrating. «Where are the songs? This is like gliding through melted sonic butter, over and over again!» Only after several listens, when I was all but ready to give up and dismiss the whole thing as an overrated piece of junk, did it dawn on me that I had adopted the wrong attitude. Instead of instinctively fighting these sonic waves, you need to learn to ride them — and once you master the technique, they will take you places where no other piece of music can. Most likely, these words do not do the album proper justice; in that case, just go and stare at the album cover, intensely, for about five minutes, because it is a perfect visual correspondence for the sonic textures of the music.

The actual songs are, indeed, not particularly complex or challenging as compositions — although it would be wrong to insist that they completely lack individual hooks. Something like the twirling, belly-dancing high-pitched guitar riff on ʻI Only Saidʼ, for instance, is quite clearly a hook, as is the similar, but somewhat more cheerfully optimistic lead melody of ʻWhen You Sleepʼ or the pulsating dance pattern of ʻSoonʼ. However, they rarely jump out at once, and even after they do, it is clearly not the specific note sequences on these songs that constitute their greatest achievements. Had the album been produced in a completely different matter, the catchiness of the guitar hooks and the beauty of the vocal modulations might have stood out more distinctly — but whether the record would have gained from this is questionable; more likely, it would have simply gone down in history as one more melodic indie-rock production, barely distinguishable from, say, fifty thousand interchangeable records from New Zealandʼs «kiwi-pop» acts of the time. As it is, I prefer to acknowledge Loveless as a single, barely divisible whole, where some parts occasionally rise above others only by a split inch.

Sometimes Shieldsʼ mono production verges on the edge of lo-fi, not because it is lo-fi, but because all the gliding and twirling and panning and phasing threatens to reduce music to a bunch of static; on ʻTo Here Knows Whenʼ, for instance, the band really goes over the top, even burying the drums so deep in the mix that the rhythmic dream-pop song becomes a distorted air siren every time you cease straining your ears to capture all of the instruments. The good news is that you do not need to do any straining — like I said, the secret is in learning to ride the wave, and forget all about the rhythm section, which just acts as a strong underwater current to keep you going and prevent you from going under.

At the same time, it is also important to remember that Loveless, despite its title, is actually directly the opposite — it is a record that is very much filled with love, a fact that you do not have to debate once you get to, say, ʻBlown A Wishʼ. Half a dozen listens to that song will reveal the warmth and beauty of the Beatlesque vocal melody, as soon as you learn to extract it from the eggshell of what sounds like a thousand resonating guitars (but is probably only just one or two). Pretty much all of the songs, no matter whether louder or softer, are really love ballads, even if sometimes this can only be decoded by means of scattered keywords and key phrases ("love", "smile", "soft as a pillow", etc.): this is probably the albumʼs most obvious connection to Cocteau Twins, but Shieldsʼ vibes are even more straightforward and less treacherous than those of the Twins (where you sometimes think you are listening to an Elfish lady ballad, but are in fact listening to a «song of the Siren»). Loveless is really all about being lovestruck — with emphasis on struck, as the entire point is on transmitting the confused and disbalanced emotional state of a person who has just lost complete control of the senses.

Even the final track, ʻSoonʼ, which moves faster and funkier than everything else, and could be seen as MBVʼs slightly belated answer to The Stone Roses, is still first and foremost a happy-trance-vibe psychedelic epic, and only secondarily a dance number (its distinctive character is also due to the fact that it was written and recorded earlier than everything else, having first appeared on the Glider EP in 1990). It is a monotonous, repetitive, but enthralling conclusion — interestingly, where most people would probably want to use something energetic like that to open the album, ʻSoonʼ acts as its closing number, sort of a bouncy reward for all those who «suffered» through the slower numbers. All the more reason to see the entire album as a cohesive psycho-reflection on the many facets of love, culminating in a psycho-tribal psycho-epic psycho-dance. "Wake up, don't fear, I want to love you". Who exactly ends up Loveless here?

If there is one general problem about the record, it is fairly common for all such «one-trick albums»: as admirably as it performs its schtick, the schtick may not deserve to last for forty-eight minutes. The problem is not that you have to wait for the songs to «click»: the problem is that, even after they have clicked, they all employ more or less the same approach to sound-making and they all share the same vibe and set the same mood. The melodies of the songs are either not too great, or their greatness is completely eclipsed by the atmospheric production, with a classic paradox — the album needs to be vague, murky, and disorienting to achieve greatness, yet all these qualities also hinder us from seeing the virtues of the individual tunes. At first, only ʻSoonʼ sounds any different from the rest, due to its ferocious «post-Madchester» rhythmic thud. Then you begin, slowly, slowly, to uncover the individual hooks — but even today, I have a hard time bringing up the chords of something like ʻLoomerʼ in my memory, for instance, or about a third of the other songs.

Clearly, this also raises the question of whether the album deserves the scope of its reputation (such as featuring in the current «top 10 albums of all time» rating on RateYourMusic). Kevin Shields is obviously a guy with a vision, but, like most indie kids of his or any other era, not a particularly great musician or note-weaver, for which lack of talent he found quite an awesome way to compensate. However, for honestyʼs sake, the same accusation could be flung at 99% of people working in «shoegaze», «post-rock», «drone-core», whatever, idioms — some people are good at writing great melodies, and some people are good at writing average melodies and then making them sound great with fabulous production skills. You could say that Loveless is so much more about the sauce than it is about the meat... but then, you could probably say the same about not a few gourmet French restaurants, couldnʼt you?

As far as general popularity is concerned, Loveless has always been, and will always remain, an acquired taste. There is no immediate appeal to its songs like there was to Nirvanaʼs tormented youth laments back in 1991, and the impressive walls of sound that the band constructed for these tunes will forever keep away more people than they will contain within. Critics and musicians will always find more to cherish here than the average music lover, too lazy to scoop the sunny beauty of the songs out of the wobbly, disconcerting production — and, honestly, once you have scooped that out, you will probably want to immediately put it back in, because Loveless Naked might end up sentimentally embarrassing. But even if you unclothe it and embarrass it and dissect it and dismiss it, it is hard not to admire the sheer artistic arrogance that went into the making of this record. Every day we get to hear albums where people fruitlessly attempt to mask their lack of songwriting talent by loudness, pathos, distortion, and clichéd «epic» chord sequences — somehow, though, I have yet to hear an album where lack of songwriting talent would be masked by making a guitar sound like the collective movement of a well-organized pixie squad in the night. With a musical fantasy like that, could not even the simplest written song eventually end up sounding like a work of absolute genius? Whatever. The best news is, I have listened to Loveless more than twenty times in my life, and I still end up confused — by it, about it, and in spite of it.


  1. I am so glad you mentioned the Cocteau Twins because around this time I was deeply involved with Heaven or Las Vegas.

  2. The indie group Japancakes did a stripped down cover of Loveless. While it doesn't hold up to the same level of excellence as the original, it arguably provides one a greater appreciation of what the band was doing here. For one, it shows that underneath all the walls of noise, MBV was still fundamentally an indie pop band with a starry eyed outlook, as reflected in the songwriting. For another, it proves how much different things turned out thanks to Kevin Shields and his approach towards both guitar and production. Some would call Loveless a triumph of style over substance, but that would be an unfair accusation, consideration its style was its substance. It was the hazy, dreamy guitar noise that captured the confused feelings one has of being in love. Without that, Loveless would just be an above-average indie pop record full of love songs.