February 6, 2013

An obligatory review of My Bloody Valentine's mbv

If you've paid any attention to the music press over the last four days, you've likely come across the name of one of the most mythologized and celebrated bands of the 90s. After nearly 22 years My Bloody Valentine have finally released their ridiculously anticipated follow-up to 1991's Loveless. Especially since the rise of taste-making sites like Pitchfork (who ranked Loveless as the second best album of the 90s, after OK Computer), MBV's sophomore release has become something of an institution. Listening to someone talk about the first time they heard Loveless inevitably brings up all kinds of nostalgic platitudes; it's basically the musical equivalent of your 11-year-old self's first wet-dream and, for a lot of us, it's an event that's fondly remembered.

By the time I first encountered My Bloody Valentine I'd already developed a boyish love for the liquid swell of guitar effects that I'd come to associate with bands like the Smashing Pumpkins. I later realized this sound was the hallmark of a loosely defined genre called "shoegaze." It made all kinds of sense. I suddenly understood what was so great about Siamese Dream: it successfully ripped off the sound--the perfect blending of androgynous vocals and textured guitar layers--that Kevin Shields had perfected two years earlier. The Smashing Pumpkins used Loveless's sonic innovations for different ends, but Billy Corgan did, after all, seek out Alan Moulder (who had engineered Loveless) to mix the Siamese Dream. At the time, anything connected to that album was pretty revelatory for me and MBV was no exception. Even the record store clerk who helped me find the CD was excited for me: "I'll help you, but only because you're buying Loveless, the best album ever made." Loveless's aesthetic was more significant for my own taste than I could have known. And as a cultural document, it served as a key to understanding what I loved best about music of the early 90s.

20 years later and My Bloody Valentine's new release, mbv, is pretty damn good too. It's the unmistakable work of an incredibly influential band, picking up more or less where their 1991 record left off. Upon first listen, it seemed more song-driven than I was expecting, but as several reviews have pointed out, the nine track album presents its songs in three groups of three. The first triad is composed of songs that extend the grainy guitar swirls of Loveless. mbv's ethereal opener, "She Found Now" unfolds like a sequel to Loveless's "Sometimes," while "Only Tomorrow" follows the same shrill guitar hook into oblivion, nicely leading into lumbering chord progressions of "Who Sees You." The next triad is made up of songs that feature vocals by Belinda Butcher. "New You" is the surprising highlight of this middle block in part because it's the closest mbv gets to conventional song structure: it's instantly catchy and melodic, almost danceable. But, as always, the point isn't to craft a good pop song; it's to push frequencies to their limits.

In the end, it's not the song, but the sound that counts. And that's clearly what's going on in the final set of tracks, which become progressively more disorienting and difficult to digest. "In Another Way" features another gorgeous set of vocals from Butcher but is noticeably more noise-heavy; "Nothing Is" fulfills its nihilistic title as it wordlessly rolls over thudding guitars and an intense, pummelling drum line; and, although Shields returns to vocal duties on "Wonder 2," the album's closing track is the closest MBV have come to sounding like a helicopter base. As it ends, you can almost see them flying out of range and out of view.

There's something both satisfying and confounding about mbv. Perhaps it's because so many of us have stubbornly held onto Loveless's aura that the new album comes across sounding like a timeless artifact: evidence that My Bloody Valentine haven't changed, that the freshest sounds from 20 years ago can still be recovered and reconstituted. But as a friend of mine pointed out, My Bloody Valentine don't freeze time, they distort it beyond recognition. Rather than some recovered aura, it's Kevin Sheilds' ability to play with time and sound that draws the connecting line between Isn't Anything, Loveless, and mbv. Most fans talk about listening to MBV as though its a religious experience, a kind of escape from lived reality. By contrast, I think MBV have managed to produce the opposite: mbv isn't the sound of transcendent departure--it's the sound of immanent arrival.

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