People say a lot of things about big, important albums and one of those things is that they give birth to new genres of music. These albums are so prizmatically appealing that each musician that takes inspiration from them can do so in his or her own unique and expansive way. Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, for example, wrote the template of sludgy, simple riffs and curt vocals for four decades of doom metal bands, from angry spazz-artists like the Melvins, to weed obsessed om-seekers like Sleep, to unpredictable maximalists like Boris. It is trite, but true: none of these bands would exist without that album.
What makes My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 masterpiece Loveless so particularly special, even when set amongst those “100 Greatest Albums of All Time” kind of LPs, is that it did the opposite. Instead of opening up a nascent genre for dozens of new bands, it basically closed the door on the entire shoegaze community. It’s so different from the music that came before it that it’s hard to be inspired. There isn’t really anywhere for your creativity to take hold. All you can really do it sit there and gape.
In fact, to call Loveless shoegaze is even a little bit misleading. Coming at the end of a genre of cathartic fuzz that was primarily reserved for the melancholy of heartsick teenagers, Loveless is strangely lacking in real sadness or angst. If anything, it’s an album about possibilities. Songs like “I Only Said”, “Only Shallow”, “What You Want”: these are songs for the sunrise. The title fits: love is great, but it’s crippling. Without love, the rest of the universe is your oyster. In this sense, the album is almost too good to be true. It rejects reality and offers another path. You can listen to normal rock music or you can listen to Loveless. Pick one.
Setting yourself apart from the herd is surely commendable, but it comes with consequences. Art changes as history moves forward, but it would be hard to say it gets better with time. Like everything else, history saw Loveless and moved on. Sure, it’s perfect and all that, but it’s a museum piece, something you take out every once and awhile to gawk at and show off to the house guests. You put it away quickly because it kind of hurts your eyes if you look at it too long. Those who thought that Loveless would open a new world of musical possibilities were sorely disappointed. Not only were post-MBV bands crushed by its influence, so was My Bloody Valentine. Once you leave the known world, I guess you don’t really want to come back.
If acceptance is the first step towards recovery, however, My Bloody Valentine have officially checked into Loveless rehab. With m b v the band admits not only that they are human, but also that they are a part of rock music history. Traces of Loveless of course remain, but they only serve to remind us of what this album is not. It is, instead, a full re-embrace of well-worn rock music mechanics.
Loveless uses repetition and development like magic tricks. The beginning and the end of a song are different, but how they are different and how they change is highly unclear. m b v, on the other hand, begins with a song that uses repetition and development to the most basic ends: it begins with a relatively small set of sounds and slowly adds volume and complexity. While Loveless was largely constructed from texture and chaos, m b v is made of chords and structure. The songs roll slowly through obtuse yet surprisingly immediate chord changes, circling resolution and satisfaction for minutes at a time. Even “nothing is”, the album’s most unorthodox track, is based on core rock and roll concepts that date back to Chuck Berry: volume and the riff.
Sound, often an agent of shock and awe in 1991, is about emotion here. Skittering feedback on “only tomorrow” is heartbreak, wind tunnel guitars on “wonder 2” are confusion, and compressed drums on “who sees you” are pain. After producing an alien album and sitting around for two decades, you might think that Kevin Shields and company have forgotten how these cogs fit together, but the most surprising thing about m b v is what a traditionally well-crafted album it really is.
When Kevin Shields created Loveless, he was 28 years old. At an age when just about everything in life is peaking, it must have made him feel like a fucking god. Today, he is forty-nine, a man with both feet sunk deep into middle age and an album that reflects it, an album steeped in a cask-aged melancholy that only the slow realization of mortality can distill. Now he surely knows, like we all do, that you are free to explore the far reaches of the universe once and awhile, but eventually you have to come home and deal with the same shit as everybody else: shit like love, death, fear, and regret. If Loveless is about infinity, m b v is about life. Short, short life. Thank God for that.