Brian: On February 2nd, My Bloody Valentine surprised the world by releasing m b v, their first album since the November, 1991 release of their now iconic masterpiece Loveless. While many fans and critics half-expected a competent bore of an album akin to Guns N’ Roses’ long-delayed 2007 release Chinese Democracy, m b v turned out to be a shockingly fresh piece of music. Nevertheless, some fans of Loveless appear disappointed that it does not represent a “next step forward” for music like its predecessor did. James, what were your expectations for m b v? Did the album accomplish what you had hoped it would?
James: By the time m b v was finally released, my expectations were incredibly low. As you already pointed out, music fans’ recent experiences with long-delayed albums finally seeing the light of day have been spotty, at best. Sure, Brian Wilson got away with finishing Smile decades after the fact, but Guns N’ Roses blew it with Chinese Democracy. To be honest, after years of being teased with the prospect of a new My Bloody Valentine album, my expectations were simple: there would never be a new album. Even after Shields made his ambiguous announcement at that warm-up gig in London the week before m b v was released, I still expected the project to fall apart. As such, I didn’t really have any hopes or expectations about what the album would or wouldn’t accomplish. Perhaps that’s part of why I am so impressed with the new album. How impressed am I? Before I go on, let me preface this by saying that Loveless is one of my top ten albums of the nineties, and an easy placement on my top fifty albums of all time list. I really love Loveless. That being said, in terms of it craftsmanship and structure, I’ve come to believe that m b v is actually a better album than Loveless. Let that sink in for a minute. I know it will be controversial. What do you think about that, Brian?
Brian: That is crazy, James. But time will tell if you are crazy like a fox. Let me explain. Loveless is one of my ten favorite albums. This wasn’t always the case, though. I first listened to it in 1995. And while I immediately enjoyed it, it didn’t really resonate with me. I found the unintelligibility of the lyrics slightly maddening, the relatively repetitive songwriting structures stiff, and the lack of variety of the album a weakness. As time went on, though, I kept returning to Loveless. About three years after I first heard it, the album began to click with me and all the things that I previously viewed as weaknesses now became singular strengths, resulting in a wholly unified, hypnotic, and blissful masterpiece that magically blended beautiful sounds with pure noise. Since m b v has only been part of my sonic panacea for just one month, it is worth admitting that, over time, I may be persuaded to agree with you. At this point, however, I disagree. It does not represent the paradigm shift that Loveless did when it was released. The first third of the album blatantly revisits the aesthetic of Loveless, while nothing on Loveless resembles the material found on Isn’t Anything. Also, I find very few of the individual tracks on the record as strong as anything on Loveless (the highlights being “Who Sees You,” “New You,” “In Another Way,” and “Wonder 2″). But, as you suggest, James, the arrangements on m b v are more complex, the song selection more varied, the production richer. So James, I’ve said my piece. I would like for you to explain to me the rationale behind your assessment because it is fairly provocative.
James: Before I go into it, I want to be clear that my thoughts on m b v being a better album than Loveless don’t take context or influence into account. Without a doubt, Loveless is still one of the most important, most influential albums of the nineties, and nothing will change that. In terms of context, Loveless is, and always will be, the most “important” My Bloody Valentine album. And, honestly, Loveless is an excellent album that passes by in a fuzzy, melancholic blur. It’s an album that lets listeners sink into it, but it is also a bit confrontational because it’s a loud album–Loveless wants to both comfort and harm us. That being said, Loveless doesn’t necessarily move or develop. Were we to graph the album by its own momentum, its line would be mostly high, gradually arriving at two peaks: “I Only Said,” and “Soon.” This isn’t bad, by any means, but listening to Loveless right after m b v makes the newer album appear to be more thoughtfully and elegantly crafted. As many have pointed out, m b v is arranged into three, three-song sections that work as “movements.” The first of these movements, comprised of “she found now,” “only tomorrow,” and “who sees you,” sounds, on the surface, like it could have been Loveless’ secret third side. Dig a little deeper, though, and these three songs, while sharing some aesthetic similarities with their predecessors, are less ecstatic and more subdued than the songs on Loveless. Here, the guitar is chunkier than anything on Loveless, the hooks less pronounced. Even the big-anthem guitar riff that runs through “only tomorrow” feels exhausted. In a way, these opening songs are a progression of exhaustion, a subtly shifting plot diagram that peaks with “only tomorrow,” then resolves with “who sees you.” By the time this opening movement reaches its abrupt conclusion with a cut off guitar solo at the end of its third song, we begin to hear that m b v is the comedown that follows Loveless’ euphoric high.
But that’s okay, because euphoria isn’t meant to be sustained for long periods. If I have one critique of Loveless it is that the album is too euphoric for too long–in a sense, Loveless is a sustained, forty-odd minute orgasm, where as m b v is full of teases and nibbles, short bursts of sex, punctuated by foreplay so that the night might last a little longer. By the time we get to m b v’s second movement, “is this and yes,” we’re in territory previously uncharted by Kevin Shields and company. The gentle keyboards and vocal coos that comprise the first song in this movement suggest that, at some point in the last twenty-two years, My Bloody Valentine went through a Stereolab phase, and “is this and yes,” along with “if i am,” and “new you,” are the result. Unlike the opening movement, though, which arcs through dreamy exhaustion toward an abrupt conclusion, this trilogy of songs gradually builds from the stillness of “is this and yes,” through the elegant, pop inflected “if i am,” to the blissful and playful “new you.” While none of these songs are particularly innovative, they represent new sounds and approaches for My Bloody Valentine, and the results are fresh and surprising. At the same time, the motion through this section of the album is a nuanced expansion of My Bloody Valentine’s sound, while also serving the structural purpose of bridging m b v’s two noisier movements.
This brings us, of course, to the album’s third movement, consisting of “in another way,” “nothing is,” and “wonder 2.” Immediately, with the opening feedback on “in another way,” this movement signals that m b v is moving back into more familiar territory for its closing salvo. Still, even as the song’s big guitar and keyboard textures sound more like Loveless than anything else on m b v, the skittery, nervous percussion provides the song with an unsettling undercurrent. “nothing is,” which instantly gets the distinction of being My Bloody Valentine’s weirdest, most tossed-off, but still necessary song, is simply three minutes of a repeated guitar loop complimented by thunderous drums. The song sounds like a record skipping until it tapers off to make way for m b v’s biggest, scariest moment, “wonder 2.” Set against a backdrop of what sounds like airplane’s taking off, and drawing on jungle and bass and drum music, “wonder 2″ is an elegant mess. So much is happening that it is difficult to take in the song in its totality, but that’s part of its charm–this song is meant to overwhelm, as if all of Loveless’ euphoria has been crammed into a single six-minute song so that m b v, an album designed around subtle builds and lesser climaxes, might go out with the bang of all bangs.
Contextually speaking, m b v isn’t going to be influential, and it will never be seen as an “important” album. The sounds and textures new to My Bloody Valentine’s repertoire are so distinctly of the nineties that, at times, the album sounds like a time capsule of Kevin Shields’ creative development over the last twenty-two years, with most of that development happening in the mid-to-late nineties. That being said, m b v is a beautiful and impressive work of art that reflects the continuing growth and maturation of its creators, and I think that’s why, even if it’s not as important as Loveless, it feels like a more thoughtful, more mature album than its predecessor.
Brian: James, I think your breakdown of the architecture of m b v is spot on. You also make a compelling case regarding what you see as Loveless‘s flaws and how the new album improves upon them. But while your argument is generally sound, there is one obvious weakness to it: m b v just doesn’t have the same quality of songs that Loveless does. Of the four best songs on the new record, “who sees you,” “new you,” “in another way,” and “wonder 2,” none of them are better than anything on Loveless, save for two early cuts on that record, the transitional “Loomer” and the fifty second snippet “Touched.” While it’s true that Loveless is a non-stop “euphoric high,” as you describe it, that is perhaps its greatest strength. Most bands lack the courage, determination, or vision to pull something like that off, because it poses the conundrum best described by the drug dealer Danny (played by Ralph Brown) in the 1986 film Withnail & I: “If you’re hanging on to a rising balloon, you’re presented with a difficult decision: let go before it’s too late, or hold on and keep getting higher.” Loveless opts for the latter option. m b v generally does as well, but there are a few moments when it lets go before it’s too late, such as the sluggish opening track (“she found now”), the cheesy transitional piece “is this and yes,” and the slow codeine drip of “if i am.” Even the brilliant “new you” finds the group treading in fairly conventional waters, something the band is rarely accused of doing. And though it is a great performance, it possesses a slight whiff of compromise that is nowhere to be found on Loveless.
While this all may seem like an unwarranted brutalizing of My Bloody Valentine’s latest effort, let me assure you that it is not. Ever since the surprise release of m b v, I have listened to it more than any new album I have acquired in the last five years. Though some listeners feel that its aesthetic hopelessly wreaks of the mid-1990s, I would beg to differ. Like The Beach Boys’ Smile if it was actually released in 1967, if m b v were released in its current form in 1996, listeners then would not know what to make of it. My Bloody Valentine’s post-Glider aesthetic is generally outside of time, not particularly grounded in any temporal musical moment. Sure, many acts have tried to duplicate their approach in the two-plus decades since, but usually they end up sounding either gauzy and dreamy (most “shoegaze” rock) or ear-bleedingly loud (most “shitgaze” rock). But none have managed to combine these two qualities in the manner My Bloody Valentine does. The new album is so good precisely because it largely avoids both the strongest and weakest “indie-rock” trends of the last decade. There are no hints of Radiohead, Animal Collective, Arcade Fire, A Place to Bury Strangers, or Grizzly Bear to be found here, save for when these acts attempt to implement aspects of My Bloody Valentine’s sound into their own. Kevin Shields’ singular vision once again manifests itself here in glorious Technicolor. If that vision happens to appeal to you, as it admittedly does to me, m b v has plenty to offer, even if just falls short of Loveless‘s greatness. If it doesn’t, then I both understand and feel pity for you, because it is soooooo good.
James: I understand your points here, and maybe I agree with them. I still love Loveless, but I often feel as if I love it in spite of the exhaustion it makes me feel. Time will tell which album’s reach will be longest for me, but I’m just happy that Shields et al managed to get on the same page long enough to release m b v—regardless of how it stacks up to its predecessors, m b v is still a fine example of a long-awaited album surpassing our expectations.