My Bloody Valentine 'mbv'
Who's saying what
Right at the front I should mention that this is an album for fans of My Bloody Valentine. If you’re hearing the chatter online and thinking that all this attention must equate to a wonderful album, something for your summertime playlist: caution, step back. This is not that album.
This exists for different reasons and if I’m completely honest, I’d much prefer you listen to something else. This band has had its go-round. Their previous two albums (1991’s Loveless and 1988’s Isn’t Anything) are canonised favourites. Their place in the cultural history of rock music is assured, fixed even, and all this is merited. I like My Bloody Valentine a lot. But you don’t need to listen to this album, you don’t need to like it or respect it or place it highly on your year-end list. In fact in 2013, listening with interest to mbv is probably a type of surrender.
The thing is, for older MBV listeners there is a lot of grace in this surrender. There are lessons that can be drawn forth. Firstly, I’m not sure that the first time one hears a ‘big record’ like Loveless - something that completely overshadows mbv - that this first experience is necessarily more important than the day one looks back and realises how subjective and autobiographical that first listening experience was. You can’t hang onto a love of music without sensing that personal myth-making at work. Essentially, you make you’re own favourite albums.
I know this for sure, mainly because my life has been changed repeatedly by some fairly ordinary records. And like former lovers and ex-employers and long-lost clothes, the specifics just aren’t as important as the stories I tell myself about how these things matter. They’re props. Beautiful, amazing props used in a process of remembering. I’d be completely lost without them and you would (or will) be too. Records are a way into our lives.
This all comes to mind when I listen to mbv and it’s no coincidence. The most affecting parts of My Bloody Valentine’s work are in the ambient layers of their sound. They’re not hidden but they’re not obvious either. There are amazing choruses and verses in their catalogue but MBV’s ongoing legacy is encoded in what is felt rather than heard. So you can hum the melodies but no one - super fans aside - sing these songs in the car. Their allure will always remain at arm’s length. And as a matured work, this is highlighted to an extraordinary degree on mbv, an album that is low on immediate thrills and high on the sort of ethereal, out-of-focus hooks that Kevin Shields is rightly celebrated for.
As such mbv opener ‘she found now’ is almost without percussion, apart from the a deeply submerged kick-drum, and ‘only tomorrow’ is almost tinny, a total waste of time until the guitars seem to melt away in the breaks and the song delivers a lead of such deft economy that it’s easy to see where two decades went. From there the album delivers its most reverent track (‘who sees you’) before dipping into a suite of almost lounge-esque pop songs. It rounds out with some pounding beats-driven tracks, one of which (‘in another way’) would have sounded like a revelation in 1994, but not so much now. Instead it’s all fairly comforting. A dense piece of work but one that sounds wonderful in headphones after a dozen listens, and like total cast-off rubbish on the tram.
For me, those first few listens were no picnic. When I first heard mbv, it just made me angry. It’s not easy giving up a part of your own life-story. I’d let this band become what literary critic Susan Stewart calls a souvenir, something that denies the present and connects me up to the daydreams I have of the past. Why? Because, despite the fact that I’m being paid to write this, no one understands the present, not of music or culture, or of anything else.
How could I possibly understand the present now, as it rushes past at a rate one thousand times faster than it did when I was twenty-two, back when I listened to Loveless and heard nothing else. Over the next fourteen years, as Stewart would rightly argue, I came to love the distance of My Bloody Valentine, something that happened a long time ago and was gently, affectingly recalled by this music that rarely places its gold in the foreground (more distance). While mbv played, my souvenir collapsed, and as the story of this band opened up again, there in waiting was the confusing world around me once more.Ian Keith Rogers