My Bloody Valentine - m b v
An in-depth review of Kevin Shields and co's long-awaited third album
Maybe it was a looming landmark of middle-age that finally did it. With his fiftieth birthday approaching this May, Kevin Shields’ sudden relinquishing of that obsessive compulsive guardedness and perfectionism with which he treats his music has been, by his usual near self-destructive orthodoxy, spectacular.
First, in May 2012, the My Bloody Valentine fulcrum finally got around to releasing that remastered version of the London-based Irish band’s second album, 1991’s utterly seminal Loveless, announced way back when, circa their reformation in 2008 – finally honouring pre-orders made as long as four years ago. Now, with an even more stultifyingly lax attitude to punctuality, apt to make Guns’n’Roses’ Chinese Democracy look rushed by comparison, comes m b v – the 22-years in the making follow-up to one of the most acclaimed and influential guitar albums of all time.
For all the excitement surrounding m b v’s sudden arrival at the start of the month – a snap digital release via the band’s website that surely drew more than a little inspiration from Radiohead’s King of Limbs – m b v had hardly been a secret. In November 2012 Shields had told NME that a new album was on course for release before the end of the year; on Christmas Eve a post on My Bloody Valentine’s Facebook revealed, ‘21-12-12 we finished mastering…’
At a recent gig in London, Shields had also mumbled that something ‘might be out in two or three days.' On past form it would have been easy to disbelieve him thoroughly, were it not for the fact that band had opened said show with a landmark: the first piece of new original My Bloody Valentine material unveiled in two decades, the enigmatically-titled ‘Rough Song’ (now identifiable as m b v track ‘New You’).
Less surprising than Shields finally offering up some tangibles was the way in which this slavish audiophile – the same guy who spent years doing that Loveless remaster from the original tapes, painstakingly effecting vastly technical sonic improvements for the most part appreciable to a sub-total of one listener – had allowed the first snippet of his magnum opus to be heard. In a very 21st century twist of irony, most fans initial exposure to this most overdue and anticipated of LPs was through a scrap of typically low-quality fan-shot YouTube footage that bounced around the internet for a few hours before being removed.
And then there’s the format issue: sure, the download is available in a range of file types from MP3 to CD-quality 16-bit WAV or even 24-bit WAV, but purists are within their rights to bemoan the fact of the true analogue cut 180 gram vinyl version’s release being postponed until February 22, weakly because ‘artwork is currently being finished’ and ‘due to the manufacturing process’ (there’s an extra 14-28 days to wait for delivery after that - a mere drop in the ocean of the 8,000-plus days we’ve had to wait thus far, but still disappointing). You could of course wait until the packet drops through your letterbox sometime in March before enjoying your first listen to the record in its most satisfying form, but it’ll require serious discipline to not at least sneak a wee digital preview before then, with the downloaded files available at a click (not to mention on an official YouTube channel where every track can be streamed free).
All this from a man once so famously fussy he legendarily reduced Creation Records boss Alan McGee to tears with the time and expense it took to hand in a second album to the label, one which by 1991 and a cost of £250,000 had nearly bankrupted McGee’s entire operation. Loveless of course didn’t kill Creation, but instead – as part of a hitherto unparalleled purple patch for the label that also saw the release of Primal Scream’s Screamadelica and Teenage Fanclub’s Bandwagonesque within the space of two months – set it on course to becoming the most powerful and celebrated British independent ever, crowning a golden era for British indie. Loveless is often held up as the pinnacle of shoegaze but it was so much more than that: an album that helped redefine guitar music writ large, with a strange, luscious, kaleidoscopic and deliciously unsettling sound as attuned to British currents in acid house, electronica and psychedelic rock as it was American movements in post-punk and noise music, with songs, as Sheilds saw it, inspired by the circular patterns of folk-blues. A litany of near carbon-copy imitators from Slowdive and Ecstasy of Saint Theresa through to Ringo Deathstarr quite aside, it inspired in different ways most of the major guitar bands of the decade that followed – The Verve, Radiohead, The Smashing Pumpkins, even U2.
Whether it had taken 22-years to arrive or not, m b v couldn’t equal, let alone surpass Loveless. Could it?
Of course not – overwhelmingly positive as reviews have been so far (at time of writing it’s ranking among one aggregator site’s most critically-acclaimed albums of all time). But it is a completely worthy follow-up, spectacular in its own right. An album made instant and easy to love by dipping authentically into the same ink-well from which Loveless was drawn (if Shields ever need to remind himself how he got his trademark guitar sound, there are pages on the web dedicated to mapping out his Loveless-era equipment rig). But an album that also sounds in no way out of step with current movements in indie and rock, and – in its latter third at least – takes My Bloody Valentine’s sound into new realms entirely.
Opener ‘She Found Now’ is an opener so gorgeous, so unmistakably My Bloody Valentine gorgeous – full of Shields doing that trademark mad wiggling-the-tremolo-arm-while-strumming-thing with his guitar, creating a shuddering effect akin to the his amp being bounced around inside a tumble-dryer, and vocals so indistinct they’re more like a rumour of a vocal – you can practically feel yourself levitating as it washes from the speakers. If Loveless was My Bloody Valentine’s ‘folk-blues’ album, as Shields tenuously put it, then m b v could be their jazz album – strange, unpredictable, more spontaneous. See the wandering chord sequences of tracks such as the outstanding ‘Only Tomorrow’, or ‘Is This and Yes’ – the most challenging moment of a hit-and-miss middle section – with its gleaming, mellow synth line and apparently random, indistinct hums of what sounds like synth brass.
Bilinda Butcher’s dreamily barely-there vocals feature prominently on the Stereolab-esque ‘If I am’, and she contributes some bewitching oohs to ‘New You’, but like drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig and bassist Debbie Googe, her contributions are sparing, or at least indistinct; this is very much Shields’ baby – he played most instruments on the album. Anyone curious as to just how he manages to entertain himself for such long stretches in the studio will gain some valuable insights from turning m b v up as loud they dare and marvelling at some of its more mind-trickingly minor details. Buried deep in the mix at the start of ‘In Another Way’ - is that a harmonica? And throughout the same track, the occasional sound of a mobile phone set to vibrate going off on a table?
Closing the album and an awesomely heavy final triumvirate of tracks, ‘Wonder 2’ proves what Shields meant when he said drum & bass had influenced at least one new song here – using a hurtling break beat as propulsion for a slowly panning swirl of backwards guitar wails, foghorn noises and jet-engine flange, it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for where Shields’ muse could lead him next, even if it should take him another 22 years.
But while m b v does renew, reinvigorate and recontextualise certain recognisable My Bloody Valentine tropes, importantly, this album doesn’t pretend not to bask in the full glow of its insurmountably revered (probably overrated, but aren’t all classic albums?) predecessor. In that simple and quite honest regard, it’s probably the most generous possible gift Shields could have given to fans who have patiently, dedicatedly waited all this time for an album that, while never likely to fully meet expectations, had to and does deliver a certain vital quotient of eardrum-vaporising noise, head-scratching strangeness and outright, dazzling beauty. Happy 50th when it comes Kevin.