My Bloody Valentine
m b v
Loveless is my favorite album. It has been for 13 years. I was 11 when it was released, but at the time I wasn’t aware of its existence. My friends and I were too busy skateboarding, playing Sonic the Hedgehog, and trading taped cassette copies of Nevermind in 1991. I first read about Loveless a couple years later in a magazine (Guitar World I think), as the album was included in an article about “textural” guitar bands such as The Cure, Curve, Slowdive, and Ride, all of whom were strung together by a writer attempting to establish a precedent for the then cultural juggernaut known as Siamese Dream. I didn’t actually listen to Loveless until sometime between then and 2000, the year I finally purchased a copy. But, like other personal anecdotes surrounding My Bloody Valentine and the band’s new album m b v, the details of my story are inconsequential when placed in a wider context. Whether explicit or implied, these anecdotes make one thing clear: when we are reflecting on m b v — an album released 22 years after Loveless — we are essentially reflecting on ourselves.
It’s no wonder, too. My Bloody Valentine’s music has always been surprisingly vague, and it’s precisely this lack of a specific or projected identity that enables fans to so easily engage on subjective levels, to use their music like a mirror. However, the band’s own identity is writ large, not through sentiment or ideology, but through the employment of one specific pioneering technique: Kevin Shields’ self-termed “glide guitar.” Glide guitar, for those not familiar with the term, is the act of playing a guitar with a tremolo arm in such a manner that the arm is being slightly pressed down and subsequently released at intervals consistent with the player’s strumming pattern; this produces irregular, bending notes that sound not unlike tape warping. Oddly enough, when we begin to discuss the term shoegaze and its connotations, glide guitar rarely comes up. There’s always talk of submerged vocals and walls of guitar and reverb, both of which MBV’s contemporaries and immediate descendants (Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Chapterhouse) had in spades, but few actually employed the one thing that would have immediately placed MBV as their direct influence (Swervedriver’s “Rave Down” being a notable exception). Not so in modern shoegaze groups. Glide guitar (or at least the invocation of it) can be found on records by Young Prisms, Fleeting Joys, Pia Fraus, Serena-Maneesh, and A Place to Bury Strangers, to name only a few. This technique is to shoegaze what tremolo picking is to black metal what the bass drop is to dubstep: an immediate identifier.
The first song from m b v, “She Found Now,” employs this tactic to great effect, even if it’s an unceremonious return, an aesthetic announcement from the band saying “we’re here” rather than the all-caps, 20-exclamation-points punch of Loveless opener “Only Shallow.” It’s not until past the halfway point in m b v, beyond the Stereolab-indebted “Is This and Yes,” when we hear what could be called a progression in sound, albeit one still augmented by that familiar technique. The album’s second act starts out strong with “If I Am,” a song where the guitars move more like the shaking of tambourines and have been doused with a disorienting mix of what sounds like a wah-wah pedal (but probably isn’t; Shields achieved a similar sound on “I Only Said” by running the guitar through a preamp with a graphic equalizer, then bouncing the track through a parametric equalizer while making manual adjustments). It has one of the slightest-sounding passages that could ever pass for a solo: a few clear bell or sine wave-like tones that appear for a few seconds mid song, bend, and then disappear, followed by the introduction of a shimmering tremolo effect. Other tracks worthy of note are the throbbing “New You,” which listeners will recognize as the song performed the night Shields had promised a new album, and “In Another Way,” whose doubling effect and ramped-up glide guitar is reminiscent of Loveless’ “Soon,” with Shields using a staccato downstrum in sharp bursts to throw the keyboard melody into relief during segues.
And finally, we come to closer “Wonder 2,” the absolute high point of m b v. If there is any track from this album that suggests a way forward for My Bloody Valentine, it is this one. The rhythmic aspect of it could certainly be attributed to Shields’ interest in drum ‘n’ bass music, but the whooshing guitar sounds are of another world entirely. It is, in my estimation, one of the most psychedelic pieces of music My Bloody Valentine have committed to tape, the direct descendant of “To Here Knows When.” I’m not sure glide guitar plays a part in this at all, Shields’ guitar having more in common with cycling fog horn blasts emerging from a thick fog — here’s a tone in the right speaker, now louder in the left with more dissonance, gradually expanding and contracting while never losing sight of the melodic backbone, trailing off, finally, into nothingness.
That m b v was released without an actual studio track leak is unprecedented for an album 22 years in the making, especially considering that many of these recordings were starting to become realized in the first era of widespread file-sharing. But then again, the album didn’t take 22 years to make, even by Shields’ own admission. If we look at the timeline laid out by Shields in pretty much all of the interviews from the 1990s through now, it’s clear that the album was mostly recorded in the 90s (75%, according to the man himself) and finished post-2007. In other words, the final product we’re hearing now is far more likely the result of about 10 years worth of work, which itself assumes that it was being worked on the entire 10 years. But does the truth matter when the myth of a 22-year gestation period is the kind of thing rock legends are built on? And what is the legacy of My Bloody Valentine post-Loveless if not legend?
Perhaps, then, the act itself of listening to the album is the most important result of m b v’s release. Simply put: I would rather listen to this album than anything else I’ve heard in 2013 so far and am confident the feeling will continue through the rest of this year, whether or not “better” albums come along. My desire to continually reevaluate this music has led to a series of playthroughs wherein my own interpretation of the album’s merit has been dynamically inconsistent. It’s obviously well-crafted and well-executed, but does that matter when only a few songs sound as if they move beyond the group’s core sonic palette? Is it even fair to expect a world of difference from m b v? Isn’t it enough that My Bloody Valentine have retained a sonic identity to claim as their own, especially in the face of genres like chillwave, hypnagogic pop, and vaporwave, which are obviously caught up in constructing a music trading in nostalgia for the decades that birthed and allowed this band to develop? Whether or not the album is judged favorably or unfavorably, the fact that there’s still value in My Bloody Valentine’s aesthetic in the face of free Bandcamp downloads, Soundcloud streams, and Tumblr feeds is worthy of note. And it certainly speaks volumes that the group could reemerge in this climate and prove that no one is capable of exactly replicating what they do. It is our own expectations — either for something entirely alien or for something that reinforces their canonized aesthetic — that we confront when listening to m b v, and the act itself of listening to the album is part of this negotiation process.
There’s an economic tool called discounted utility, which allows for these exact inconsistencies regarding intertemporal choice: by making ourselves aware of the possibility that our own future valuations of something may be lessened, we can account for them in its current valuation. To that end, I can freely admit that I like this record right now, but in the future, I may not. But is taste even relevant in the case of a cultural artifact so long in gestation that its mere appearance catalyzed much of the internet’s music critics into questionably premature evaluations? The worst outcome for m b v would be if it were perpetually caught up in the myopic frame of the present, if the discussion doesn’t evolve beyond there being only two reactions a person can have when hearing it — apathy turning into disdain or starry-eyed worship. I honestly feel a little of both, and I’m not sad or troubled by that at all.
01. She Found Now
02. Only Tomorrow
03. Who Sees You
04. Is This And Yes
05. If I Am
06. New You
07. In Another Way
08. Nothing Is
09. Wonder 2