Some Have Waited a Lifetime: mbv and the Recording Return of My Bloody Valentine
The particulars of this story are already familiar for those who care to know. It has taken a little over twenty-one years for My Bloody Valentine to release mbv, the follow-up to its celebrated 1991 album Loveless. As almost every commentator has observed, for years the group’s leader Kevin Shields has been promising a new album (originally and ambitiously planned for a July 1993 release), all the while continuing to work on other projects—producing and recording with Primal Scream, contributing five songs to the soundtrack of the Sofia Coppola film Lost in Translation, mixing and remixing a variety of releases by other artists, and taking the reconstituted band back out for well-received shows, like the one they did in Chicago in September 2008. After several teasing comments in the press, which understandably elicited guarded responses, the band very quietly announced the availability of the new album on 2 February. Almost immediately thereafter, anyone trying to order/download said new album from the official band Web site was greeted by a 403 error, an indication that the web servers were reachable but overloaded with requests. I finally managed to get through and complete my order (following several abortive attempts and lots of wondering exactly how many other people were having the same difficulty) after about 2 hours.
The reviews started appearing almost immediately, and now, five days out, the consensus from an unsystematic survey—pieces from The Quietus, The Guardian, Dusted Magazine, The New York Times and Pitchfork Media—is one of cautious celebration. It seems as though none of the writers is ready to declare this album the masterpiece they recognize its predecessor to be, but none of them wants to say that it isn’t either, perhaps for fear of being on the wrong side of history. (In fairness, though, I should point out that Pitchfork rated mbv 9.1 on a 10-point scale; among 2012 releases, Grizzly Bear’s Shields and Beach House’s Bloom also received that rating, while Frank Ocean’s channelORANGE and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city both rated 9.5). At worst, as in Alexis Petridis’s Guardian piece, writers spend too much time on the backstory, and the reverence for Loveless that emerges from that exercise means that mbv can only suffer in comparison. In other cases, the timbral and textural uniqueness of what MBV does leads critics to come up with bizarre prose and metaphors. Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, for example, resorts to paraphrasing something he read online Sunday morning, after a rambling soliloquy on solitude and listening (whose oddness might be the result of editing infelicities). Ratliff writes,
Listening to both [Loveless and mbv] is a deeply interior act, and a safe one.You’re inside the music’s loud undulations, and inside your endlessly fascinating self. You are also inside your house, because you are a person of patience and a record collection, and it is perhaps not unusual that you stay home on Saturday nights … This is vivid music, with color and texture and perhaps taste. On Sunday morning the critic Brandon Stosuy mentioned on Twitter that his young son, hearing the album, described it as sounding like a cookie in his ear. That is correct: shortbread, I’m pretty sure. Salty, granular.
Like Ratliff, every other writer has been explicit about the long shadow cast by the earlier album, but only Raggett for The Quietus and Richardson for Pitchfork come close to approaching the album on terms other than whether it’s as good as or better than Loveless.
Having auditioned the album three times—without having listened to any other MBV in months—I’ll say that it’s a very good disc, one that, once I’ve had the time to live with it, to understand the layers and the logic better, I’ll probably describe as brilliant. I’m already close to that assessment because of the way that Shields and company seem to have developed a more arch approach to both harmony and form in the intervening years. In this regard, they seem to be taking the path taken by many other musicians I love—Wayne Shorter, David Sylvian, Mark Hollis, Roland Orzabal (on occasion)—by moving further into the realm of abstraction. As is true with those other artists, conventional song elements are still buried somewhere in the mix, but the phrase lengths, points of inflection and sense of motion (generally implied by the term “chord progression”) depart significantly from even MBV’s standard. The harmonies of “Who Sees You,” for example, continually wander, with every approach to stability being diverted toward some other tonal territory. But—and here’s the crucial thing—those diversions make the song dreamy and incantatory, especially when the intensity peaks in the final minute or so. I hear the fifth track, “If I Am,” in the same way, though it has a higher quotient of obvious ear candy—timbrally indistinct high-pitched sounds and percussive flourishes that appear in the mix only once and for reasons known only to the recordists involved, e.g., at 1:29 and 1:41. Along with that ear candy, though, there’s a nicely sculpted pop song that could rival many others from earlier in the group’s career.
“Who Sees You” and the two preceding tracks, “She Found Now” and “Only Tomorrow” (the latter subtly organized in ten-bar units), are as both Richardson and Raggett indicate the most like older MBV—seemingly chaotic and always serenely churning (think about that description; it does make sense). The three that follow move away from that almost recognizable style for something that seems more straightforward, though the weird sounds and processing remain. The song most likely to work as a single, if My Bloody Valentine had any interest in releasing one, might be the final track in the second group of three: “New You.” I say that partly because, with a light funk bass and drum pattern running throughout, Bilinda Butcher’s vocals’ being less buried than usual, and a haunting keyboard counterline, it’s the most straightforward track on the disc—and partly because my least favorite songs from albums often tend to be the ones chosen as singles.
Whatever the case might be, the middle three serve as a bridge between the familiar material that begins the album, and the not-so-familiar material that closes the album. In particular, the first track in the last group, “In Another Way,” sounds like My Bloody Valentine with other things added—elements of so-called Krautrock as well as elements from the Portishead playbook (compare the track to “Silence” from the latter group’s Third). And some listeners, who apparently ingested, snorted, smoked, injected or drank too much of something claim to hear the influence of Big Country in the track because some of the guitars sound like bagpipes (first starting around 1:26). Right. On tracks like “In a Big Country” around 1:18, Big Country’s guitars really sound like bagpipes, whereas on “In Another Way,” the sound is more like that of guitars processed with judicious amounts of delay, tremolo and perhaps a little phasing, i.e., standard MBV guitar processing. The layering of those guitar sounds, with keyboards and Colm O’Ciosig’s drumming in the track’s long coda is one of the album’s highlights. But the real mind-blower for me, all the more so because it closes the recording, is “Wonder 2.”
The track opens with silence interrupted by flanged helicopter-rotor-like sounds which morph into a rhythmic pattern supported by organ, guitars and a drum kit reduced mostly to skittish cymbal playing and a deeply buried kick drum. After the lead and harmony vocals enter, the track sounds like a mess, a deliberate aural mess. It seems at almost every point on the verge of disintegrating on some level—tonally, timbrally, structurally, rhythmically. When, for example, a loud, distorted guitar enters around 1:24, it disrupts the fragile flow, making even the metric framework (with its occasional dropped beat) seem to be up for negotiation. The e-bowed guitar that accompanies it only ratchets up the intensity and the disruption. On subsequent appearances that from-another-place guitar is even more dominating a presence. In many ways, the track shouldn’t work, and its gorgeous, singable melody might seem misplaced. But it all hangs together brilliantly and mesmerizingly.
In fact, I think that last statement could probably apply to the whole disc. Twenty-one years was a long time for some fans to wait. For this one, listening to the new album has made those years melt away. I’m hoping, as some others are, that there’s truth to Shields’s claims that they are already preparing album number four. If “Wonder 2” is any indication of how it’ll sound, I’d be willing to wait a long time, again…