The biggest story in music this weekend was undoubtedly “m b v”, My Bloody Valentine’s first new album in 22 years. A surprise release on February 2nd, it seemed like the cruelest internet prank ever: Kevin Shields once again saying the release was imminent, and all of us aware that we’ve been stuck in a cyclical existence of waiting, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog’s Day.” But the album was real. Shields & Co had delivered an actual physical artifact. It was a nice emotional release for everyone; except perhaps cynics and contrarians, and those who generally dislike MBV.
I happened to listen to “m b v” with enough White Russians in me to fell a moose. When the first track “she found now” slowly, gently and gorgeously emerged from a cloud of droning fuzz, there was not a little nostalgia enveloping me. This is part of the MBV experience: the music is ferociously embedded in the brain’s memory receptors. When one first hears MBV is just as important as the music itself. This type of musical imprinting is nothing new, but at least for me—and, I would gather, most fans—the imprinting of MBV is stronger than any other. (Save for perhaps The Beatles, Boards of Canada, Pixies and Burial, in my case.)
I wasn’t old enough to be part of the first wave of MBV fans, but I did get incredibly, perhaps even pathetically hooked on the group in 1996, when it was still a real possibility that Shields would finish the “Loveless” follow-up before the close of the millenium. This was around the time Shields was said to be experimenting with drum and bass or jungle electronic music. But by the late ’90s everyone seemed to agree the album might never happen. By 2000 we found other musical outlets. It was around this time that Shields jumped aboard Primal Scream to lend his guitar dynamics to the group’s records and live shows. Fans were treated to a moment of MBV-esque joy on Primal Scream’s “XTRMNTR” track “Shoot Speed/Kill Light,” which found Shields, Bernard Sumner, Gary ‘Mani’ Mounfield and Bobbie Gillespie appearing on a gloriously psychedelic Krautrock tune. That’s right, former members of MBV, Stone Roses, Joy Division/New Order and The Jesus & Mary Chain all playing on the same track. Sublime.
Around 2000 time I really got interested in electronic music (though I was very much an Underworld before then, thanks to Trainspotting). That is, in electronic artists that experimented with sound and melody in ways that I thought were synchronous with MBV; which led me several years later to Ulrich Schnauss, Boards of Canada, Freescha and so on. But us MBV fans always held out hope, however faint, that Shields would finish what he’d started; especially after he recorded several tracks for the movie “Lost In Translation,” sounding as good as ever.
And now that he has closed the circle with “m b v”, was it worth the wait? Is MBV still relevant? Does “m b v” surpass “Loveless”? Is our judgment blinded by the musical singularity that is “Loveless”? All of this is worth considering when reviewing the new album.
Listening to “m b v” that first time in my drunken shambolic state, I found myself pulled into the nostalgia gravity of album opener “she found now.” First impression was that Shields had done it. The album wasn’t a cynical cash grab, but inspired. “She found now” is gorgeous, cocooned in warm fuzz like, say, “Sometimes.” Shields’ tremolo’d guitar notes shoot across the field of sound like stars burning out in the void. It’s hard to deny its beauty. But after it faded out and gave way to “only tomorrow,” which was equally as good, I started to snap out of the haze of nostalgia. The song, which begins strong, ultimately fades out with a sort of J. Mascis or Neil Young-esque guitar riff. And I thought, Shields is going for a more stripped down approach to the guitar on “m b v”, and it colored my entire first listen. From there I couldn’t help but be cynical, measuring it against “Loveless” and what I thought “m b v” should have been (as arrogant and absurd as that sounds). Despite this, I fell asleep at around 4:00 am with my headphones on listening to the album.
Stream “m b v” below.
The following day was the time for several (10) listens to the full album, start-to-finish, no skipping. By degrees “m b v” began to make its true self known. And it occurred to me by the second or third listen that “m b v” should in no way be compared to “Loveless.” It’s the fatal flaw when experiencing the follow-up to a genius album. And yet we allow this filter to dictate the ways in which we follow the musical trajectories of any given group.
So when Kevin Shields says of the new album, “I feel like it really it frees us up, and in the bigger picture it’s 100% necessary,” we should read the subtext—”m b v” isn’t “Loveless” nor should it be. It is its own creation. The follow-up was never going to be Loveless+, it was always going to be something else. And when Shields lost the thread in the years after “Loveless,” he probably came to the same conclusion after measuring his new songs against what is arguably one most of the important sonic documents of the 20th century.
When I understood this, I heard “m b v” with new ears and without expectation. I heard it for what it is—and it is a wonderful record. Great, even.
We hear MBV playing around with dance again on “in another way,” while folding in decidedly different guitar riffs and rhythms. We fall into the fantastic industrial trance of “nothing is”, a track that might force the conclusion that Shields was being lazy, since technically it doesn’t evolve at all. But if we thought about it, even for a moment, we would be reminded of the loud and annoying critics of Daft Punk’s “Human After All,” and what a joy it was to see the aesthetic vindication of those repetitive, minimalistic songs given new life on the “Alive” tour. Or perhaps we’re reminded of how Autechre can frustrate with their atonal electronic excursions. But if we thrust ourselves into a task such as art or the writing of fiction—hell, even carpentry—then something like “Untilted” becomes this friend to creation. That is what we should be hearing in “nothing is”, if we are open enough to the experience. But if first requires cleansing our memory banks of the “Loveless” residue. I make the guarantee right here and now that if MBV play “nothing is” live, it will be monumental, and every last critic who refuses to understand it now will be backpedaling so fast they might experience prolapse.
But Shields isn’t above gently pushing fans back into the otherworldliness of “Loveless” for a nostalgia trip, as he does on “who sees you” and “if i am.” In the former, warm bumblebee guitars wind around Colm Ó Cíosóig’s stuttering drums (always one of the highlights of MBV, in my estimation), with Shields unfurling his brand of lead guitar. The old meets the new in a completely wondrous and satisfying way. On “if i am” the Beach Boys influence can be heard beneath the haze, as subtle staccato synth (or electric piano?) notes and bits of sound float through the mix, while Shields delicately dusts it all with his warbling, fluttery guitar. And the psychedelic outro is not to be missed. Just be sure to crank the volume before the song ends.
But it is on “is this and yes” that MBV’s Beach Boys-esque arrangements and instrumentation are most pronounced. The Beach Boys and “Smile” influence should come as no surprise. As Shields told NME in a 2012 interview:
The idea was to bring a lot of parts together, riffs or chord changes without making a song out of it. […] I wanted to see what would happen if I worked in a more impressionistic way, so that it only comes together at the end. I think I was probably a little influenced by [The Beach Boys] Smile at the time.”
And of course it’s interesting that Shields references “Smile,” since “m b v” became his burden in the same way that “Smile” became Brian Wilson’s. But whereas Wilson completed his follow-up to “Pet Sounds” almost four decades after its inception, Shields mustered the will to complete “m b v” while he’s still in full command of his musical powers.
MBV pivots on “New You” in what has to be the clearest and catchiest song they’ve ever put to tape. The general opinion seems to be that it’s one of the album’s strongest. There’s no denying that it’s immediately satisfying and totally hummable. Established and neophyte remixers will no doubt stumble over themselves to drop the first remix of the track. But for my money, “New You” is not the album highlight. I wouldn’t even put “she found now,” the most beautiful song on the album, in that category.
Kevin Shields’ crowning achievement on “m b v”, the proof that MBV is still relevant and, as the Greeks would say, excellent, is “wonder 2.” This was probably the track Shields had in mind when he said he was working on that drum ‘n’ bass song in 1996 or thereabouts—incorporating the DnB beats into the MBV aesthetic. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work. If Shields had dropped this track in 1997 it would have shattered egos across the seven continents, and blown Oasis off the damned map forever. It is the musical equivalent of psychedelic ego death. And now, in 2012, it’s just as revelatory.
We must collectively thank Kevin Shields for his determination in finishing “m b v”—that he would let it finally breathe and lift that 1991 burden off of his shoulders.