|Release date||Label||Producer||Genre||Length||More info|
|1991.11.05||Sire/Creation||Kevin Shields||Modern Psychedelia||48:32|
"All you need is love" as seen from the perspective of Schrödinger's cat.
In a certain sense, the year 1991 should probably be counted as the beginning of the "modern" era in popular music - in the most natural sense of the word: "one that is still going on as I write this"; and My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, along with Nirvana's Nevermind, is one of the few albums that really brought that era about. The Eighties were, after all, a weird and excessive decade whose main flaw is that it took its outrageous discoveries far too seriously, and asserted its love for futuristic technology and outlandish fashions way too strongly for the rational human being to adopt it once and for all without criticism. A bit of restraint, intelligence, and 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.
Although they often go announced as the "quintessential shoegaze band", I do not think MBV ever subscribed to or respected that genre's conventions. They started out in the mid-Eighties as a freaky post-punk band, seriously influenced by The Birthday Party (This Is Your Bloody Valentine, their little-known and much maligned debut album, is really the only record in their catalog that somehow justifies the band's silly name), then evolved to the state of a dynamic noise-pop band with Isn't Anything, and finally recorded their masterpiece at a time when the quintessential atmospheric art-rock band was probably Cocteau Twins (who weren't much of a "rock" band anyway). The challenge was simple enough: can a 1991 album rock out and colorfully blow your mind at the same time? And sound mysterious and intelligent enough, too, so that the players do not come across as the latest reincarnation of Hawkwind?Some basic facts
For the recording, the line-up of the band was the usual fare: Kevin Shields (guitar, vocals, sampler), Bilinda Butcher (guitar, vocals), Debbie Googe (bass), Colm Ó Cíosóig (drums, sampler). Notably, the album took almost three years to complete, and is said to have cost the band's label, Creation, more than two hundred thousand pounds (although the precise sum remains uncofirmed). This is an important point to consider (especially for those of us who tend to perceive the songs as too primitive and noisy), 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 problems with the record label, but also because of Kevin Shields' Brian Wilson complex: he felt obliged to follow the record up with something even more mind-blowing, and ended up almost blowing his own mind to smithereens.
Needless to say, the complicated nature of these sessions, and the band's subsequent retreat into the shadows for more than twenty years has contributed a lot to its now-legendary status. Although the album 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's such a tasty record for all sorts of mythologising. The actual influence of Loveless on musicians world-wide, I think, has been rather 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 Radiohead, and, well, any other art-rock band with guitars that belongs to the modern age. (Of course, that does not mean that they are exclusively entitled to that kind of praise.)
For the defense
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 should 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. 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 an effect on you, you're probably not designed for music listening in the first place.
The basic technique behind this is simple - the so-called "glide guitar" effect of Kevin Shields' abusing the tremolo bar as he strums the strings. Multiply this by a novel use of the sampler to multiply and procreate feedback, and by a special approach to the vocals, which are usually delivered in lulling falsettos and then mixed deep below the surface - and what you get is a bunch of songs that are here, there, everywhere, and nowhere at the same time: rock music's ideal contribution to the quantum theory. To me, that was at first frustrating. "Where are the songs? This is like gliding through melted sonic butter!" Only after several listens, when I was ready to give up and dismiss the whole thing as an overrated piece of junk, did it dawn on me that this is simply a wrong attitude. Instead of 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. And if you feel like these words don't do the album proper justice, 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. As it is, I prefer to acknowledge it as one barely divisible whole, where some parts rise above others by a split inch.
Occasionally, Shields' 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 goes really 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 don't 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's a record that is very much filled with love, a fact that you don't 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 album's most obvious connection to Cocteau Twins, but Shields' 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's 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 MBV's 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". So who exactly ends up Loveless here?
For the prosecution
Well, naturally, the worst that can be said about Loveless is that it suffers from all the same things that "one-trick albums" suffer - as admirably as it does its schtick, the schtick may not deserve to last for 48 minutes. The problem is not that you have to wait for the songs to "click" - the problem is that, even after they've 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" RYM rating). 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 honesty's 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. So My Bloody Valentine may be masters of the sauce rather than masters of the meat, but, likewise, there are people out there ready to sink their teeth into any meat as long as it is served under the right sauce, no?
Loveless has always been, and will always remain, an acquired taste. There is no immediate appeal to its songs like there was to Nirvana's 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've scooped that out, you'll probably want to put it immediately 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 cliched "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've 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.
|Melody||Voice||Mood||Production||Innovation/Influence||Where it belongs||RYM preference|
(Feb 28, 2016)
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