I never really expected to write this review. At this point, I don’t think anyone was expecting to write this review. It has been 22 years since Loveless, their last release and now an almost sacred moment of early 90’s musical history. Even when band leader Kevin Shields publicly stated that an album was finished, or that it would be released in “2 to 3” days, I did not fully believe him. So, when the album was available last Saturday, with no real fanfare or believable warning, I scrambled. This couldn’t actually be real, could it? It was and now I am here, writing a review of My Bloody Valentine’s latest album, mbv.
First, a caveat, it is nearly impossible to take mbv on its own terms, as a standalone album. Loveless remains such a landmark record and many of us (myself included) have distinct memories of our first experiences with it. Also, Loveless, despite shoegaze being a relatively easy style to reproduce was never really matched by anything similar; it remains one of a kind. Now, where does that leave mbv? It cannot be Loveless and it really should not be Loveless. Plus, with 22 years of expectations behind it, it is coming with a lot of critical baggage. Yet, mbv does not disappoint. It is not Loveless, but it arrives at a time when the influence of Loveless is abundantly clear. In many ways, this record resembles Loveless in its overall aesthetic, it definitely sounds like a follow up more than a stylistic leap. Perhaps, mbv’s lack of innovation is a continued testament to how much an impact My Bloody Valentine has had since 1992. While this album is not as innovative as it might have been had it come out in the early 90’s, it is still a compelling, well-made work that uses white noise and feedback to both placating and jarring effect and that is capable of introducing surprisingly new elements to the band’s old formula. This record does more, subtly, to confound our expectations, to suggest directions forward should there be other My Bloody Valentine records after this.
Preceding LPs from My Bloody Valentine begin with a prominent drum in the first track, so it was a bit of a surprise to see the pattern broken with “She Found Now,” which opens the record with a wash of feedback. mbv eases you back into the band’s sound, picking up where Loveless left off, drifting through the album’s opening 6 minutes. From there, the album moves in a similar pattern, it is for the first 6 tracks, generally subdued, marked with contemplative melodies that sometimes rise up above the feedback. It is to the band’s benefit that they can mix melody and noise so well as to make this section as strong as it is and leaves you to wonder what Loveless might have been with slightly better recording quality. These songs are slightly stranger, slightly more off kilter in a way more reminiscent of Isn’t Anything. If anything, this somehow seems a more smooth transition from that album than Loveless, as if, in some way, the timeline of these releases had been somehow eschewed. The discord at the bottom of a track like “Who Sees You,” and the spookily clear “Is This and Yes,” is especially emblematic of this albums kinship with Isn’t Anything.
The next three tracks continue to work under this familiar rubric, with the single ready “New You” closing out the section. If the album continued at this pace, for the last 3 tracks, it would have been a strong record in and of itself, a solid continuation from previous records and a welcome return. However, something shifts and the album moves in a completely new direction at “In Another Way,” making mbv something more difficult to pin down.
With “In Another Way,” the layer of dreamy feedback and distortion clears with shrill squeal of guitar and synth, and the the prettiness of the first 2/3 of the album is replaced with something sharper and more abrasive. Following this, the instrumental “Nothing Is” pushes that change further, a drone of pounding drums and noise leading into the closing, “Wonder 2” which finishes the album on the cusp of something wholly different, the pitch slowly rising until the song, and album cut off abruptly. My Bloody Valentine could have just coasted through those first 6 tracks and we would have thought it a fitting follow up; it would be the event it was regardless. It is this last third that make the album something wholly more respectable than a simple follow up and rehash of what worked so well in the past. It establishes, if only briefly, a commitment to pushing forward.
The drastic shift in style and tone, of course, suggests that maybe these tracks were written much later in the 22 intervening years and could be easily read as a response to what has happened since Loveless. Shields and co suggest that, yes feedback, distortion, noise, those things can all be hazy and dreamy and, in fact, pretty, but noise is also meant to be something abrasive as well. Loveless felt revelatory because, at the time, it was jarring, a coming together of several musical currents.
However, and this is extremely important, Loveless cannot be revelatory again, you cannot simply go back and do the same thing and have the same effect. No, the context has shifted and the influence of Loveless has made that initial break a well tread part of today’s musical landscape It is with those last three tracks that mbv suggests, at least for the band, a way forward, a hint towards something new in the future, should they continue to record and release albums.
The sudden release of the album was almost a phenomenon in and of itself. Even with the warning, it was such a shock to see that yes, there was actually new material available from this band and that you could be listening to it right now. It took many by surprise and marks one of the rare times, in a time when blogs like this (and writers like me) give you new albums in an endless drip of singles. It has been sometime since a new album could just spring out of nowhere. But, somehow, a band guarded their new material, held it from everyone, and released it when we all least expected it. This, apart from the album, made for an interesting moment and it was nice to be reminded that you could be excited enough about an album to put off any other plans in an attempt to get a hold of new music. Hopefully this signals a full return for Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine, because, as mbv demonstrates, they don’t appear to be out of new ideas.