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My Bloody Valentine – Loveless
Loveless is one of those albums that comes up everywhere once you dig into all the wonderful things rock music has to offer. Coming at a time when 80s synthpop had been worn out and the future of music was ripe for shaping, Loveless along with Nevermind (released just a few months earlier) became one of the most stand out albums of the last thirty years. To call it influential would be a little inaccurate, as its genre would not grow or have much of an influence on the way music progressed.
Its creators, the Irish group My Bloody Valentine or MBV, were already pioneers of a niche genre of alternate rock music known as shoegaze. Their first LP, 1988’s Isn’t Anything, was a darker, lo-fi, heavier sounding rock album that fit perfectly into the state of music at the time, around records like Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, bands like Dinosaur Jr. and The Jesus and Mary Chain, symbolising the transition period of music from the 80s to the 90s. MBV’s sound, however, really became distinct through the release of several excellent EPs, all of which are available in a collection with both original LPs. Shoegaze gained its name from the fact most bands that played it spend a lot of time looking down at the ground in a very detached way as opposed to the more common crowd relations, often spending a lot of time using floor pedals, thus generating the impression they were staring at their feet. The album’s cover explains shoegaze perfectly – it is a guitar, heavily masked in colours and patterns. Just as the guitar looks otherworldly on the cover, the music is something that leads you to look at conventional rock music in a different way.
Loveless was released at the genre’s zenith in the early 90s. Ignoring a modern resurgence (known as nu-gaze) it is considered the pinnacle of shoegaze music, before the genre fell away to grunge on one side and Britpop on the other, although that isn’t to say Loveless didn’t have some influence – its sound may be unique, but it definitely had an impact on bands surrounding it like Sonic Youth and The Smashing Pumpkins. The record took two years and a quarter of a million pounds to produce, meaning that it practically bankrupt Creation, the record label, but fortunately it was met with great critical acclaim and success. Band frontman Kevin Shields was so heavily involved in every aspect of the album’s creation he was said to have hired and fired many sound engineers without them having done so much as made the band tea.
The record kicks off with one of two singles, “Only Shallow”. It throws the listener straight into what MBV are all about, thunderous guitars, swamped in digital reverse reverb, clashing against each other, breaking into unintelligible vocals that merge into the wall of brash, bold chord progression and tirelessly repeating drums and bass. As tracks on Loveless go “Only Shallow” is heavier than most with guitar and bass melting into one amorphous sound with the other guitar offering the tremolo strumming that makes MBV so unique. Such interesting sounds are produced from their guitars; throughout the record they are capable of making screeches, hums, drones, noises like whale song all from the same instruments. This defines the band and shoegaze in one four minute opener, which is a superb thing to do. A thing to note is just how delicate the production and mastering actually is – despite such a cacophony of sound, even at full volume the track never seems like it will cause damage – unlike their live shows, which are some of the loudest you can experience.
MBV’s key tenet is creating soundscapes, obscuring melody to create intensive, intricate walls of sound. They combine the traditional elements of riffs and basslines with heavy alteration (though importantly this alteration comes during the actual playing of the instruments, not in the studio), and at times veer significantly away from conventional rock music. The end of “Only Shallow” hints at this, feedback, light echoing strums, before we enter “Loomer”, a much shorter track with less brash, bold rock sound. Here the band show how careful they can be – Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drums are just a continuous pattering, Bilinda Butcher’s vocals are lighter, more delicate. It is highly contrasting to “Only Shallow” in that the former is every bit a fist pumping, head banging rock song, whereas “Loomer” feels like the build up to something, as if the record will explode.
It doesn’t. Instead we have the one minute interlude of “Touched” – wailing guitars (yes, it is a guitar, though it sounds more like an injured animal), and a string melody over feedback and fuzz. It doesn’t really seem to serve much of a point – it is not really a song in itself, it doesn’t really follow from “Loomer” or link in to the next track. Just a simple soundscape, showcasing their ability, perhaps. Despite not featuring drums, it is actually composed purely by Colm Ó Cíosóig – the only track not influenced by Shields. It may, then, be a dedication to him, as he was unable to record many of the tracks due to personal reasons – Shields was often forced to use samples of his beats
“To Here Knows When” is a track similar to “Loomer” in many ways. The guitar, soaked in tremolo and other such modifications, most of which were customised personally by Kevin Shields, warbles in and out of existence in the same way as Butcher’s vocals do – to MBV, the singer is just another instrument. Lyrics are unintelligible and unimportant – you won’t find much significance or poetic merit in MBV’s lyrics, but if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re not looking in the right place. The drumming is again very subdued and repetitive, as is most of the other instrumentation – the song goes straight into what it’s about, and floats on much the same tune for the entire five and a half minutes. Some listeners may well find this a little bit boring, but the layers of sound and the intricacy of the production, the obscured melodies, really speak to the expert craft of the musicians who made it.
For all their soundscaping though, MBV are at their best as a rock band. The end of “To Here Knows When” offers a catchy riff of sorts (of course shrouded and dulled down) and that brings us straight back to the kicking single type song that “Only Shallow” was, with in fact their second single from the record, “When You Sleep”. With a great riff, breaks for verses, it is structurally very similar to most songs of its era. Listening to something like Siamese Dream can really show the influences tracks like this had. This is the first time we hear Shields singing on the record, and his voice is layered and obscured as well, though clearer than the past tracks. It is similarly repetitive as well, but in a far more catchy way, and there are subtleties that develop throughout, like a heavier bass, warbling tremolo bars on guitar strings, and other such effects until the song dies out into a sparkle of synthesisers.
Next comes the similarly structured “I Only Said” – the same kind of effects are used on the guitars, but in the verses, which Shields abandons to Butcher alone, have the guitars masked in feedback, trying to strain out into the crying riff, the vocals are whisper shouted almost, all over a repetitive, thundering drum and bass line. Cíosóig would begin to experiment with drum’n’bass music itself as the band began recording its third LP in the early 90s, though it would not be released until 2013. Debbie Googe’s bass is more distinct here as it is in “Only Shallow”, used like the drums as a constant, tying the sonic vision Shields had together, providing a foundation for the manipulated guitars and vocals to spring forth from. “I Only Said” is a healthy balance between the more soundscaping ideas of “Loomer” and “To Here Knows When” and the more conventional rock structures of “Only Shallow” and “When You Sleep”. A clear indication of the band’s intention is summed up in the way the guitar effect was produced – while Shields could have used a wah pedal, he chose instead to play the guitar through an amplifier with a graphic equaliser pump, then bounced through a parametric equaliser for him to balance manually. His point was to show what could be done by playing with the contents, rather than the result – modifying an existing sound is not something that appealed to the band, it was producing it straight up.
“Come In Alone” is one of MBV’s most grandiose tracks, coming in with all guns blazing, a ponderous drum line, crashing symbols and yet another manipulated guitar sound that like the previous tracks forms the focal point of the song. This is more similar to “When You Sleep” however, with a more conventional structure. It marks the end of the strongest trio of songs on the album, and my personal favourite. The guitar stretches and hoots out of the thundering instrumentation, Butcher’s vocals are at their most distinct (though again, don’t go looking for inspiration in the lyrics) and MBV demonstrate their sound at its fullest. Few things sound so unique in such a conventional structure, and that is really what makes MBV such a remarkable and interesting band.
“Sometimes” is a song that brings Shield’s vocals back to the record and actually with some more complex and thoughtful lyrics, some of which highlight the band’s intention perfectly:
“Turn my head/
I don’t know when I lay down on the ground/
You will find the way it hurts to love/
Never cared and the world turned hearts to love/
You will see, oh now, oh the way I do/”
MBV certainly turn our heads into sound, but in “Sometimes” there is a more personal touch, almost ballad like, Shield’s supported by ‘oohing’ backing vocals. Were it not for the continuing growl of electric guitar in the background, the track is almost acoustic, and could very feasibly be performed with acoustic guitars alone, and yet the soundscape remains – just a poignantly differing one from what has been experienced in the record so far. The departure from the two types of song seen so far (and “Touched) isn’t necessarily a bad one; it highlights MBV’s ability to continue to surprise us – as they would do in 2013.
“Blown A Wish” offers guitar and far more emphasis on vocals for its signature melody. Nearly every track on Loveless has some distinct feature, and all of them are unique in the context of the sound around the time, but not necessarily within the band. “Blown a Wish”, however, stands out with its use of vocals and vocals almost being played like guitars, sliding back and forth over that same constant of drum and bass. Here the band demonstrate how they can achieve something close to beautiful vocal harmony with the exact same mechanics, as if they are touring the listener on what they are capable of.
“What You Want” is pretty close to a generic MBV song. Shields takes to the mic again with Butcher relegated to back up duty, the guitars are dominant, almost overbearing, there is a tremolo bar influenced riff. As a rock song it stands out due to the intricacy in its construction, but in context of the album it doesn’t manage to stand out in the same way as the powerful soundscapes or the crashing, bouncing rock songs. Similar to “I Only Said” in that it provides a balance between the two types of songs, and it certainly does nothing wrong – but having just been subjected to three very different examples of what the band can produce in a row, going back to the ‘generic’ sound is a little disappointing. That isn’t to say it is bad, by any means, its signature is as solid as any, and it dissolves into a wonderfully unexpected medley of pan pipes and the echoes of feedback and glide strumming that lead us into the final track on the album.
“Soon” is aptly named, as we come to the end of the record it feels like very little time has passed since those opening snare hits of “Only Shallow”, but in reality it has been three quarters of an hour – the record clocks in at just under fifty minutes in total. “Soon” has one of the more distinct drum beats in the album with more snares added to the repetitive beat, giving the track more energy, lending it more to the rock song side of the MBV spectrum. Yet it still soundscapes, with howling guitars that suddenly disappear into a quiet, pleasant, bouncy tune, quite the contrast, but it works brilliantly. At one moment listening to “Soon” it feels like a rock anthem, at others an indie pop song. The combination of the two is so hard to make work, but MBV seem to do it effortlessly (or rather, with two years’ worth of effort).
“Soon” does feel like the end of an album, almost as if the credits are rolling on this work of magnificently individual and unique art, one of the only albums ever to truly define an entire genre. Most of the names on the credits might be Kevin Shields, but the roles of the others can’t be denied. Loveless fades out with the vocals, guitar, drum and bass all tirelessly repeating, until it suddenly breaks into a few hints of obscured melody. A fitting end – everything the band is about, closed off perfectly, but with the door open for a sequel, one that took twelve years to come out.
Only Shallow – 89%
Loomer – 79%
Touched – 74%
To Here Knows When – 79%
When You Sleep – 91%
I Only Said – 86%
Come In Alone – 93%
Sometimes – 83%
Blown a Wish – 85%
What You Want – 81%
Soon – 82%
Overall Score -83.8 – Very good
(This is perhaps the perfect example of why a scoring system is a bit silly. The album is a masterpiece – but there were tracks I did not enjoy that much, which brings the whole thing down. Removing those tracks allows the album to reach high into “Exceptional” territory).
DISCLAIMER – THESE SCORES ARE NOT AN ASSESSMENT OF THE OBJECTIVE QUALITY OF THE MUSIC. THEY ARE REFLECTIVE PURELY OF HOW MUCH I ENJOYED EACH SONG, WITH A GUIDELINE AS TO WHAT THAT MEANS TO ME.
0-10% – Awful
10-20 – Incredibly poor
20-30 – Missable
30-40 – Below average
40-50 – Not great
50-60 – Average
60-70 – Better than average
70-80 – Good
80-85 – Very good
85-90 – Exceptional
90-95 – Must listen
95-100 – Seminal, masterpiece