The first thing you think is that you might have been bothered to come up with a title, Kevin Shields. After twenty-two years. Something brilliantly ennui-laden, which also hinted at woozy, hallucinatory, MDMA-addled sex, perhaps? Like in the old days? Or, you know, something pointedly different? But no, at first sight, at least, there is something worryingly lazy about that m b v. And when you are talking about a record by a man who has taken worrying laziness to new heights over the past twenty-two years, it’s not entirely unreasonable to worry. But then you glance at the list of song titles and you know that song-title-wise at least, Kevin Shields has still got it. You simply couldn’t make up titles as ridiculously Valentines-ish as ‘is this and yes’ or ‘she found now.’ And yes, naturally, all of the titles are written in lower case.
So then. Just how strange is it to be sitting and listening to a song with a title like ‘she found now’ that sounds like it could have been recorded directly after Loveless and released in the mid-90s (and most probably was and could have been)? A song that, yes, sounds like Loveless, but at the same time does exactly what Shields suggested the new album would do, when he told NME last year that the new record sounded, ‘warmer and more human,’ than anything they had recorded before? A song that, without diverging very much from the Loveless template, sounds strangely – almost unbelievably – unlike anything else that has been released in the intervening twenty-two years?
It starts as though they have already been playing the song for a while, as though you have accidentally opened a door and found yourself in a languid world of woozy, hallucinatory, MDMA-addled sex. This can only be a good thing. Shields is singing and his voice sounds the same only it’s much clearer in the mix than it ever was on Loveless, it sounds closer to the classic shoegaze vocal he hallmarked on début album Isn’t Anything. The guitars are chiming and ticking and as relatively clear as his vocal is, it’s still hard to work out much in the lyrics beyond ‘I wonder how that she found now.’ It seems obvious enough, however, that he’s singing from some sort of plateau of addled rapture. Then the guitars go all fluid and driving and insistent and intertwining in what can only be described as a breath-taking musical approximation of what it feels like to lose yourself in someone else. Of what it feels like to love. Only great artists can do this properly. Shakespeare, Titian, Beethoven, Joyce, Woolf, Bridget Riley. I’m trying to think of another pop band who can do this. This well. For the moment I can’t but there is no doubt whatsoever that Kevin Shields can.
In an unusually candid interview with the Quietus last year, Shields agreed with the interviewer when he suggested that ‘So many of those songs are about sex, but there’s nothing carnal or thrusting about them. It’s as far removed from Led Zeppelin as you can get,’ because:
their [i.e. Led Zep] sex songs were about wanting it. We were doing it! It’s from the inside out, rather than the outside in.
While this may sound a little humorous and flippant, it is also a revealing comment. Part of what makes My Bloody Valentine so different in the dull, cock-swinging world of guitar music is their lack of interest in gender definitions and their focus on the interior world. These are not songs about standing on street corners, wearing skinny jeans and leering at girls, but songs about, amongst other things, making love. They are interior monologues made into sound. It seems strange to say, in a medium as outwardly transgressive-seeming as rock and roll, but there aren’t really that many songs about what it’s actually like to fuck, they’re nearly always about the possibility, or the aftermath of fucking. Viewed in this way it’s possible to think of the Valentines as being the rock and roll James Joyce. Not only are they formally experimental but they deal with subject matter that nobody else in their medium even thinks of. Even today very few people write as openly about sex as Joyce did in the ‘Penelope’ section of Ulysses, and even fewer with anything like the same degree of success. All of which makes it not so surprising that no one has managed to sound like the Valentines in the last twenty years.
So if we take it as read that Loveless is Shield’s Ulysses then it must surely follow that m b v is his Finnegan’s Wake? Expectation-wise this is probably what quite a lot of people, myself included, were expecting. The record after all has taken twenty-two years to make, a period during which even Shields himself has admitted going ‘crazy’ in. So there seemed a fairly good, if in retrospect, rather romantic idea that part of the reason he had gone crazy was because he had been pushing himself to the outer limits of his sanity. A lot of people were expecting this album, if it ever was released, to be maybe more out there than actually any good.
All of which makes m b v, with its cogent, complex symphonic pop songs, so surprising. There is no doubt that it is, by most peoples standards, quite an out there record but it is so in a deeply controlled, compositionally exquisite way. Overall it is a poppier and, as I already mentioned, much warmer affair than Loveless (a record which, after all, was so called because of the miserable conditions in which it was made.) As Alexis Petridis has already pointed out in his Guardian review, if there was one complaint you could level at Loveless it was that in creating the Loveless sound Shields maybe didn’t put as much attention into the actual song composition as he had done on Isn’t Anything. On this album, in a sense, you get the best of both worlds because the songs are uniformly magical and the Loveless sound honed. It is true that it is only really on the second track, ‘only tomorrow,’ and the closing ‘wonder 2,’ that you get a real sense of new sonic ground being broken but this doesn’t really matter so very much because of the spellbinding, adventurous quality of the compositions.
It is true to say, however, that these are arguably the two best tracks on the album. ‘only tomorrow’ is simply sensational. The last time guitars sounded this loud and out of control was when Shield’s made Primal Scream sound like the band they had always thought they were on ‘Accelerator’ – like some kind of astonishing hybrid of The Stooges and the Mary Chain. Although ‘Accelerator’, in retrospect, was basically what ‘Rocks’ would have sounded like if it had been a Valentine’s song with a Bobby Gillespie guest vocal. But, imagine, if you will, what ‘Accelerator’ would have sounded like with a beautiful, woozy Bilinda Butcher vocal over the top. And an instrumental outro whereby Shields somehow manages to make his guitar sound like a drunken trumpet, which is to say, a trumpet played too slow on vinyl, or a trumpet being listened to by someone on ketamine. This, at least, in some ways, is what ‘only tomorrow’ sounds like.
‘wonder 2’ meanwhile is the product of that drum and bass direction that Shields was talking about in the nineties. MBV meets drum and bass always sounded like a horrible idea to me but, of course, Shields was hardly looking at it in a David-Bowie-collaborating-with-Goldie-type-of-way. Loveless, after all, was hugely influenced by hip hop and that’s hardly obvious until you consider the way Shield’s layers sound. It starts with a whooshing aeroplane-like-roar, played to emulate a skittering drum and bass pattern (after a while a more conventional drum and bass track also enters the mix), while Shields provides a mournful, Beach Boys vocal and some decidedly downbeat guitar. If it sounds like anything then, in truth, it sounds a bit like Panda Bear, with his penchant for singing Beach Boys-esque harmonies over jarring music. What it most definitely does not sound like is anything you would ever hear in a drum and bass club. Like all the best Valentine’s songs it manages to be both euphoric and elegiac at the same time.
So then. Just how strange is it to be listening to the new My Bloody Valentine album in 2013? In truth, not that strange. Like Loveless, m b v has a way of sounding almost elemental, almost like it’s always been here. There are times when it vaguely sounds like something else – ‘new you’ is reminiscent of the uncharacteristic, orchestral 1996 cover MBV did of ‘We Have All the Time in the World’; ‘in another way’ sounds a bit like the most fantastic Stereolab record you’ve ever heard – but mostly it just sounds self-contained and unique. After twenty-two years that’s more than anyone had a right to expect. And, in retrospect, even that title makes perfect sense. What else, after all, could they have called it?