|My Bloody Valentine - m b v|
Last night, My Bloody Valentine released the followup to 1991's Loveless, simply titled m b v. I'm not going to rehash the backstory here. More able commentators than I will do so, and they will have had the benefit of being there. I first heard Loveless in 2002, when I was in high school. I'd heard of it for several years before that, but for some reason had never investigated My Bloody Valentine. One day, I went to the music store and bought Loveless. I'd never listened to single track before buying it. I put it on and it didn't do anything that I expected. It was . . . amazing? I'm not sure I can really remember anymore what I first thought. I grew to love it, though, like so many others. I can remember sitting on the bus with a friend, coming home from school and listening to the end of "I Only Said" over and over again, trying to figure out how you make a guitar sound like that. I can remember sitting in my basement, trying to make my guitar do those things. I can remember the first flushes of young love and young heartbreak and how "Come in Alone" was perfect for both of them. I can remember deciding that the guitar break in "Loomer" was what the voice of a god would sound like. I can remember my parents' patience in putting up with me playing Loveless in the car endlessly (sorry, mom and dad!). I have a surprisingly large number of memories that are attached to listening to Loveless.
I'm on my eighth listen to m b v (plus more for a few individual songs) at this point. I've got a handle on what I'm thinking about the songs (I think), so I figured I'd put down some initial thoughts. These will change, and come December, when I make my next albums of the year list, I'm sure I'll look back on what I wrote and laugh at how I tried to process this album the day after it appeared in the world. I'll find it strange that the songs that will become my favourites are the ones that I was less sold on initially (as if it could be any other way). I'll laugh at things I didn't know that have since come to light and shaped my understanding of the album. It's inevitable. Oh, well. Here goes nothing.
m b v is an album of two parts. There's a very clear break at some point between "the followup to Loveless" and "a new group of songs by My Bloody Valentine" that, I think, will become this album's identity. In some ways, m b v is impossible to listen to non-ideologically. It is, in Zizek's famous phrase, "pure ideology." There is the symbolic fiction of the tortured genius, slaving away to top his own masterpiece, cracking under the pressure, and redeeming himself by finally releasing something, anything, and finding that he still has a voice after all. There is the fantasmatic spectre of the twenty two year wait--the reality that the world (and music) have moved on, that no release can mean the same thing that an album did in 1991, that whole futures that Loveless' successor could've belonged to (most tantalisingly, jungle) have been and gone--and the even more traumatic spectres of all the music that's come since Loveless: the remixes, the contributions to other bands (hello, Primal Scream!), the one offs and live performances. There's the pre-ideological kernel, the assumption that bands have next albums, that requires the symbolic fiction be set in motion to disavow those traumatic spectres (Kevin Shields himself has done a very good job of separating My Bloody Valentine from those spectres and insisting most fervently on the symbolic fiction, as in his interview with The Quietus last year). My god, you think when you press play, pure ideology. This is what it sounds like.*
There's also the spectre of that other thing, hauntology. You want to talk about futures that have never been? The first three tracks on m b v are a pretty convincing example of what that never recorded sequel to Loveless from 1994 would've sounded like. That jungle/drum'n'bass direction that consumed 1994-1997 and never amounted to anything? "wonder 2" is an, ahem, wonderful look into that lost world. A My Bloody Valentine who decided to take a look at what Tortoise and Stereolab were cooking up and realised that "No More Sorry" and "Touched" got them halfway there? "is this and yes" is as dreamy and as beautiful, but more alien. This is, then, an album out of time. An album missing its time. An album that could never belong to a time. It's belated in the Eliotic sense of the term, a Rip Van Winkle of an album that grew more famous for being asleep (and thus lost its voice--became incapable of saying anything, of being heard as anything, of being, plain and simple, in the world--because it got cut out of the symbolic order) and woke to a world where Loveless had become Loveless, instead of simply being an album that came before this one, and Kevin Shields couldn't touch a guitar without having already reinvented it and rendered it pointless.
So, in all of that, where's the music? Perhaps more importantly, what's the music? That's not an easy answer. It's beautiful, that's for sure, but it's strange, and wrong, and boring, and a half dozen other adjectives to boot. The album starts off on its weakest foot--"she found now" is a pretty timid way of saying "We're back!," all muted vocals and subdued, subterranean howls of guitar, a far less interesting "Sometimes"--but it gains confidence quickly. "only tomorrow" and "who sees you" (the latter bearing a distinct resemblance at times to my beloved "Come in Alone") are a reminder that My Bloody Valentine is a guitar pop band, but these songs are too strange to be "When You Sleep" or "Blown a Wish" or "What You Want." Both ride long guitar outros, with "only tomorrow" turning into a fanfare of guitars-as-horns, sunny as a High Llamas tune, and "who sees you" stealing that "Only Shallow" drum trick before tumbling into hook after unexpected hook, the chord changes always a surprise (even if it does kind of sound like Chewbacca's blues in places...). Both songs are a little too long, but why wouldn't you want to luxuriate in something like this? My Bloody Valentine's music has always been about sleep and dreams, and they seem to be soundtracking the weekend sleep-in with these two tracks. If nothing else, that Shields wasn't producing bands throughout his years in the desert is a crime that he must be held accountable for. So many bad guitar tones that never had to be: m b v's guitars are a thing of rare beauty.
The few seconds of silence between "who sees you" and "is this and yes" herald a change. A twinkling, weightless ballad, this could never have come before, even as it is so clearly coming from those earlier albums. When you wake, you're still in a dream, the band said once before, but they've never really sounded as much like a dream as it fades away as they do right here. Bilinda Butcher's voice might not even be real. It feels more like the stuff around it (guitars? synths? hours and hours of sampled and manipulated feedback?) than the expression of a human being. Suddenly, m b v's stakes are much higher. They could, you start to feel, be on to something here. "if i am" might be the last gasp of old My Bloody Valentine on the album, but even here it feels disoriented, falling apart and fading away, the moans and gasps of guitar in the background forlornly seeing their own end, mourning all the songs that never came to be. Something else is around the corner, the album seems to be saying, something that keeps interrupting the old ways.
As a first step into the new, "new you" is aptly titled, and given its live debut ahead of the album, one has to think that the band sees it as a marker of some kind. Certainly the prominent synths are a bit of a shock, but the fuzzy, funky bass and the drums feel like siblings to "Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)," and it ends up feeling as much of a false step as "she found now." It's pretty, but like "What You Want" on Loveless, I can only imagine waiting through it to get to what's to come. In this case, it's m b v's strongest, weirdest third. "in another way" is easily the album highlight, the first song that, on my initial run through of the album, made my eyes go funny and my brain say "what the hell was that?!" Vicious sheets of guitar, frantic drumming, a beguilingly ambiguous vocal from Bilinda, everything's here, but it's the break that first appears 1:25 into the song that makes you sit up and take notice. Those pulsating guitars that suddenly seem everywhere and take you away are breathtaking. That the second half of the track consists of nothing but suggests that Shields knew exactly what he was doing when he decided there was something to these songs, after all. The bizarrely dance-y "nothing is" follows, three and a half minutes of steadily ascending guitar grind and repetitive, train-a-coming drums that ratchets the tension ever higher until cutting out into echoes of itself as heard from the next building over.
As an end to m b v (to My Bloody Valentine, even, should it prove to be), "wonder 2" is fittingly apocalyptic. Jungle rhythms, air raid siren guitar, barely barely-there vocals, a future rush like it's 1995 all over again, the songs feels constantly on the verge of blowing away and imploding simultaneously. Whenever it feels like there's nowhere left to go other than destruction, the vocals return, and the song gets a chance to do it all over again. Then it's gone, replaced by silence. No fade out, just a quick, flanged swirl before the end. As if nothing follows this, or could follow this. "Soon" felt like an arrow pointing to all the things that My Bloody Valentine could be (and would be) just over the horizon. There's no horizon here. If Kevin Shields, if My Bloody Valentine, is to do anything else, it won't be the followup to m b v in anything other than a chronological sense. This is an album that will have no children. I have to think, to buy into that symbolic fiction, that somewhere (between South Korea and Japan, I'd imagine), Kevin Shields is happy about that.
When m b v dropped--and after the website broke, and then went back up, and then broke again, etc., etc.--I wasn't so much wondering about whether it would live up to Loveless. I wanted to know how I'd live with it. Waiting for a website to come online, bitching on twitter about that website crashing, rapturously tweeting when I finally started listening, these are all signs of how different my life is a decade on from hearing Loveless (which I listened to in my bedroom in my parents' house on a stereo, not on a laptop in my own apartment). In a lot of ways, I'm relieved just to have another My Bloody Valentine to live with until the next one (if there is one) comes out (if it ever does). There are thousands of arguments to be made about the death of one thing, or the start of another, or the end of something, or the beginning of something else with this album. I've made a half dozen in the above review. More than anything, though, what I want to do is listen to this album and, more importantly, forget this album. To forget how a song goes when I haven't listened to it in awhile. To be surprised (again) when there's a chord change or by a particularly noteworthy sound. I want to listen to this album in a thousand different ways, and I don't want to think about it as an event, as part of a failed website launch, as a blogpost, a think piece, or a Pitchfork score. I want m b v to be an album. I want to have space for m b v to mean something to me, so when the next one comes around (surely Kevin can't take another twenty two years, right?) I'll think about m b v and I'll smile at the music, sure, but at so many other things, too. For right now, writing about it ends here for me. I'm going to go do some dishes and have it on the background. Or stare out the window at the snow that's falling. It doesn't matter. I'm going to go listen. You should, too. It's a pretty great album.
*I recognise I'm taking a hell of a lot of liberties with Zizek and his discussion of ideology here. Permit me my fun.