Last Saturday night, the UK-based band My Bloody Valentine suddenly released m b v, the long-awaited follow-up to their 1991 masterpiece Loveless. The response was rabid. It seemed like the entirety of Facebook and Twitter was clamoring to hear an album that many had doubted would ever appear. For me, it was a curious reminder that my ardor for My Bloody Valentine is shared by admirers worldwide, people old enough to have bought Loveless on its release date alongside those born during the band's wilderness years.
When I first started writing about music, an editor told me that anyone who writes about culture has to earn the right to use the first-person. I've tried hard to obey ever since, and I doubt I've paid my dues yet, but I can't think of an entry point for writing about My Bloody Valentine besides my own experience. After all, their music is deeply treasured by millions more people than I could ever speak for — especially given that I was 4 when Loveless arrived.
So no, I can't claim to have awaited m b v for 22 years. I can't regale you with first-hand accounts of Loveless' epochal impact. And, frustratingly, I can't really imagine what it must have sounded like then: in dialogue with the burgeoning electronica scene, in a world that would soon be dominated by "Smells Like Teen Spirit," in contrast to the clean retro sound that Oasis would shortly usher in.
But here's what I know: when I first heard Loveless in 2002, I felt like I had finally found the sound I'd been looking for, without quite realizing it, for my entire life. No other music had such an instant impact on me, and none has stayed with me for so long.
I was not ready for what happened when I pressed play and heard the album's opening track, "Only Shallow": four rapid snare hits and then, out of thin air, an explosion of sensual guitar noise, enveloping yet forbidding, with Belinda Butcher's otherworldly vocals gliding beneath the cacophony. Each track unfurled new sonic vistas flush with urgency, intimacy and serenity, overpowering in their intensity. Since then, Loveless — along with 1988's Isn't Anything and several of the group's terrific EPs — has been a constant companion for me, never exhausting the infinite pleasures and wonders hidden inside its luxurious, shape-shifting folds of sound.
Any sound that potent must have acolytes, and My Bloody Valentine inspired countless imitators, both during their heyday and in the decades since. It's certainly possible to approximate their signature guitar swirl with the right equipment. But Loveless has something — a "spirit" that Shields insisted was missing from the aborted '90s recordings — that makes it a singular experience, like a document of a language that was barely ever spoken.
Like most musical mythologies, the cult following around My Bloody Valentine orbits a tortured genius figure: the band's singer, guitarist and sonic mastermind Kevin Shields. It's hard to know what's truth and what's hearsay, but for better or worse, Shields' legend is now set in stone. He allegedly bankrupted Creation Records perfecting Loveless' sound, burning through £250,000 over the course of two years. After the album's release, he took an advance twice that size from Island, but the pressure to deliver a follow-up forced a colossal meltdown (to cite just one snippet of the endless lore, at one point Shields supposedly filled his apartment with caged chinchillas and barbed wire for no apparent reason). Although the band had committed dozens of hours of material to tape, Shields deemed all of it unfit for release.
My Bloody Valentine went dormant until 2007, when they regrouped for festival gigs and sporadic touring. But even with the band reuinted, Shields' frequent declarations that a new album was coming weren't taken seriously. Now, with m b v, we have a sign that the "spirit" Shields alluded to can be conjured again, that the language of Loveless is still intact. Parts of it feel clumsy yet still inspire awe. Others are distant, inscrutable. Still others offer a disorienting glimpse of the future that Shields promised with Loveless and deferred for so long.
A mesmerizing trio of opening tracks — "She Found Now," "Only Tomorrow" and "Who Sees You" — lands on familiar ground. Swollen, blurred guitars creak with distortion, and Shields' hushed vocals evoke Loveless and Isn't Anything's most serene moments. But the songwriting feels more amorphous than before. Chords crash together in peculiar combinations, tentatively building without resolving. Melodies are jagged and rhythms asymmetrical. It's an altogether darker, more dreamlike and disjointed experience.
The record's middle section yields some startling left turns. "Is This and Yes" features nothing resembling a guitar, instead juxtaposing a surging, shimmering organ, a bass-drum pulse and Belinda Butcher's graceful singing, which seems to slowly dissolve into mist. "New You" is another feather-light slice of warped pop, anchored by chugging bass.
The album's final third is some of the strangest, most boundary-pushing music of the band's career. The jaw-dropping "In Another Way" is assuredly one of Shields' finest moments ever. It throbs with overwhelming bliss yet carries an odd decenralized tension, thanks to the most kinetic, driving percussion anywhere in the band's catalog. Meanwhile, sheets of guitar noise swarm and disperse around Butcher's labyrinthine vocal melody. "Nothing Is" is just a grinding riff and galluping drums repeated for a few minutes — a punitive, unearthly fusion of Shields' guitar histrionics with something resembling industrial music.
m b v climaxes and closes with the bracingly alien "Wonder 2." The song has clear roots in Shields' long-rumored attempts to merge his sound with the furious polyrhythms and futuristic bass grooves of the mid-'90s genre called jungle. Here, sputtering jungle breakbeats are warped into shards of glistening melody that whirl among the screeching guitars, building to a thick storm of sound as Shields' yearning vocals strain to break through. Layers pile on into a thunderous, chaotic musical landscape, and then it all abruptly stops.