Better late than never. And I actually mean that. It has been 22 years since My Bloody Valentine released their second album, Loveless, and I dispatched myself to interview Kevin Shields, Deb Googe, Bilinda Butcher and Colm Ó Cíosóig at the Mitcham home of their manager, for the attendant NME cover story. It wasn’t an easy interview, but then, they weren’t an easy band, and they didn’t make easy records. They stood alone, despite being roped into a fabricated “scene”, cheekily christened Shoegazing. (It was the effects-driven, languidly-paced, pale-faced guitar bands who bloomed in MBV’s wake who really deserved the tag. Oh, and we gave one of them a cover, too – Chapterhouse – a notoriously poor-selling issue, as I recall, despite a decent story written on the road in the States and a fantastic coverline: “Here’s Looking At Shoe, Kid.”)
I fell in love with My Bloody Valentine on first listen, which will have been Strawberry Wine on the Lazy label’s EP of the same name in 1987. Not their first release – I can’t claim to have been in at the ground floor, but then, I was never a tastemaker – but my first listen. It was, of course, You Made Me Realise, in August 1988, that took them to a new level of originality and raw power, and if you weren’t smitten then, you were never going to be a convert.
I had arrived at the NME by the summer of ’88, and, as a result, from my vantage point within the citadel, their subsequent releases arrived, for free, in 12-inch record envelopes from Creation, with my name on. (I would have bought them had my life taken a different turning.) I only saw the band live once, which was at the Town & Country Club in December 1991 on the Loveless tour, but it blew my mind, as promised. (Our deputy editor, Danny Kelly, had been to see them at the beginning of the tour to review, and claimed that during the now-legendary ear-bleeding take on You Made Me Realise, his plastic pint glass flew off the edge of the balcony through the sheer sonic force. We believed him.)
I still hold Loveless to be one of the great albums of all time, never mind one of the great albums of its era. Though it has individual tracks – and a single, in the rave-inflected Soon, which Shields neatly calibrated at the end – it’s one of digitally recorded music’s most persuasive arguments for the Long Player. I had MBV’s early releases on vinyl, but Loveless arrived on CD, and it feels tailor-made for the single listen. You can’t shuffle it. (Well, you can, but you shouldn’t, you philistine.)
So, to their third album. (Not a sentence I thought I’d write in my lifetime. Certainly not until the band reformed for those Roundhouse shows in 2008 and Shields started dropping tantalising hints about the record they’d started in 1996 being “three-quarters” finished!) Titled, annoyingly but with scorched-earth defiance, m b v, it arrived on February 2 with almost no fanfare, like the David Bowie single. But would it be any good? I only got my hands on it two days ago, but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait – a wait, lest we forget, during which you could have given birth to a child and watched him or her leave home for university.
Due to the arse-over-tit way I uploaded the album from WAV files to iTunes – and because of the unbearably non-intuitive, counterproductive latest version of iTunes, particularly its search facility – the first time I fired it up from the laptop, it would only play randomly, which was a crime against humanity. I’ve fixed this now. Fortunately, my maiden listen was via my iPod, where it plays in order. So when I’ve been listening to it in transit – and it really suits gazing not at shoes but out of train or bus windows – I’ve experienced it as a whole, in full, from one end to the other. It’s a glorious piece that runs to about 46 minutes over nine tracks. (Loveless runs a little longer, but over 11 tracks.)
Along the way, considering the langorous timeframe, during which time dictatorships have been toppled and wars begun and ended, not so much has changed in the My Bloody Valentine universe. The palette of multiple slightly and not-so-slightly distorted guitars, washed over with sounds that appear to have emanated from synths but, unless the Shields manifesto has changed, won’t have done, is recognisable. (Their tricks have been much copied, and adapted, but still nobody sounds like them.) While the dancey nature of Soon bamboozled us in 1991, it’s the jaunty nature of New You that’s the album’s most generous, head-turning surprise. While opening salvos She Found Now and Only Tomorrow remind us of Loveless, New You, brilliantly named, reminds me of Can’s I Want More in feel, and adds a bona fide bounce to proceedings, as Butcher coos somewhere in the middle distance. It’s a cornerstone track. You have to hear it.
Elsewhere, the drone, screech and aerobatic stream are present and correct, and uneasy listening is the captivating result. If someone listened to m b v, or Loveless, and declared it “noise”, you wouldn’t argue with them. It is. But a beautiful noise, as Neil Diamond might have had it. And nor would you try to convert them. For many, this music will go in one ear and, eventually, out of the other. Presumably this is why, with all the hype and expectation, Loveless only got to 24 in the charts 22 years ago. You really do need to tune in, and if not, walk out.
The changes are subtle. An optimism seems to come out in the vocal in Who Sees You, although I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it. Is This And Yes bears the unmistakable addition of a keyboard pulse, atop which the vocals positively glisten. If I Am cruises along on a ragged snare beat with woozy vocals that almost take it into Stereolab country. The rhythm on In Another Way is furious – albeit tempered by the balm of Butcher’s serenade. Not so on the instrumental Nothing Is, where this same rhythm is almost repeated but to a much grungier end. Most adjustments, though, are closer to imperceptible. But then, it wasn’t broke, so why fix it? (For alphabetical reasons, when the album ends on iTunes, it goes straight into the mechanically rhythmic Machine Gun by Portishead. A sympathetic transition, actually.)
Yes, m b v sounds like the entire sonic cathedral has been filtered through a single kazoo, but the genius of that! And it ends with a mighty six-minute track that seems to have been sculpted from sampled train and plane noises, Wonder, which pretty much confirms my suspicions that it’s for listening to between A and B. Where Soon brought Loveless to an accessible close, Wonder might be the most difficult movement on m b v. It climbs and climbs as if barreling up a mountain with no intention of coming back down.
I actually don’t mind if the fourth MBV album comes out in 2035, if it’s this good. I really, actually don’t.