Kevin Shields, the mastermind of the Irish band My Bloody Valentine, approaches rock music like an Impressionist painter. He’s best known for crafting improbably beautiful sounds from incredibly loud and dissonant noise, but that’s only his most obvious skill. Shields’ genius lies in the way he uses these sounds for both texture and gesture, letting pure, unmusical sound imply a pop structure and harmony that is not technically there. It works the same way on an emotional level too, with vocals rendered in an androgynous, nearly inaudible purr that blurs out nearly all lyrics except for the bits that poke through to give the listener just a bit of context. You pick up on the sexuality and the intensity of feeling, but you’re left to fill in the specifics yourself. It’s no wonder that so many people over the past two decades have fallen hard for the band’s 1991 masterwork Loveless – the record demands that you finish it yourself, and it subtly pushes the listener to fill it out with their most idealized feelings about intimacy and romance.
My Bloody Valentine essentially disappeared after they finished touring for Loveless in 1992. The album became a legend in indie circles, and Shields’ silence, however vexing to his fans, cemented the record as an unassailable classic. There was no disappointing follow-up, no failed experiments that would encourage listeners to think of Loveless as a fluke. My Bloody Valentine was a perfect band, forever frozen at the pinnacle of their career. The album’s reputation set in pretty early. I bought my copy of Loveless in 1995, and even then, just four years after it was released, it seemed like something from the distant past, and there was no expectation that another My Bloody Valentine record would ever materialize.
That all changed on February 2nd when Shields and his band released MBV, their first album in 22 years, on their official website with almost no advance warning. Many fans, nearly all of whom had resigned themselves to never hearing from My Bloody Valentine ever again, prepared to be very disappointed. After all, where could this band go but downhill? How could anything short of perfection be acceptable? But as it turns out, all of that trepidation was unnecessary. MBV is a worthy successor to Loveless, and a masterpiece in its own right.
The most striking difference between Loveless and MBV is in the way the records are structured. Whereas Loveless follows a clear musical arc that blurs into one extended suite, the nine tracks on MBV are sequenced into three distinct movements. The first trio of songs offer a harsher, less polished version of the Loveless sound. It feels very familiar, but Shields subtly adjusts his formula – he contrasts blocky distortion with clear chiming chords, and rhythms plod along in a lethargic haze. The second set swaps out the guitar fuzz for glowing synth tones, psychedelic coloring, and bold melodies, while the final third is highly rhythmic, with Shields using busy beats for both texture and tempo.
It’s not hard to imagine that part of the hold up in finishing the record came down to Shields not having a through line for the sequencing, but the three act structure manages to neatly tie together two decades of creative tangents. (Shields spoke about integrating drum and bass back in the late ’90s, so it’s plausible that “In Another Way” and “Wonder 2” date back to that era.) MBV is sequenced like a journey, starting off right around where Shields left off in the early ’90s, and ending with his most far-out experiments. Many fans assumed that Loveless was a creative dead end, but MBV is an entire record of songs in which Shields applies the aesthetics of that record to different forms and moods – the icy keyboard drones of “If This and Yes,” the Steve Reich-gone-hardcore stomp of “Nothing Is,” the abstracted chart pop of “New You.”
Guitarist and singer Belinda Butcher at the Coachella festival in 2009.
The most inspired moments on MBV are just that – sounds that surface for a few seconds and then completely disappear. This is where his approach to sound is most painterly, and he expertly applies a brief specific noise to suggest a complex emotion or full musical phrase. One of the best examples on the record is in “If I Am,” where about halfway through there’s a spot where some guitarists might play a quick lead, but Shields seems to smear one expressive note across the speakers for a couple seconds, and lets you hang on that sound as it dissipates. But yet, despite this absurd degree of minimalism, it functions about the same as a proper solo.
There’s a similar part in “Only Tomorrow” where a single rising note – probably a vocal part, but who knows, really – comes up from nowhere, contrasted with the harsh buzz of strummed chords. It’s like a balloon rising up and then popping mid-air. Then, as if in direct response, the sound of the chords seem to suddenly corrode, like a cell phone call with bad reception.
This is very different from how Shields arranged Loveless. The songs on that record had pop structures, but were much less dynamic. Each song on Loveless feels like a single moment extended indefinitely, which lends the music a holy, meditative quality. There’s a very different philosophy on MBV – it’s not about stopping or slowing down time as it is about enjoying fleeting, inexplicable moments of transcendental emotion.
It’s fitting that an album that took two decades to create is thematically and structurally preoccupied with time. Shields’ signature sound is based mainly on setting notes and chords out of phase, which messes with our perception of a sound’s relationship with chronological time. The lyrics, or at least the bits that are comprehensible through the noise, obsess on fixed moments in time - “She Found Now,” “to come soon,” “only tomorrow, the love comes easy,” “we’ll wait there.” The final lyrics on the album, near the conclusion of “Wonder 2,” come across like Shields addressing the glacial pace of his creative process: “You were always late / to see tomorrow / everyone knows that you’re such too soon.”
The cover art addresses the passage of time as well. At first glance it’s just a haze of indigo and violet, but if you examine a high definition version of the image, you can see that it’s a dense collage of photographs that appear to be taken in the same studio space over a very long period of time. It’s a perfect visual analogy for the music – patched together from moments over the course of many years, but effectively a single, coherent expression of an abstract feeling. And just as the music buries its words, so does the image – look closely, and you see a single evocative phrase: “Nothing is this, and yes I really love you.”
This line, however oblique, is the emotional core of MBV. Shields’ subject has always been love and sex – his breakthrough single was called “Feed Me With Your Kiss,” and his greatest artistic epiphany was realizing that he could harness guitar noise to signal sensuality rather than aggression. But while Loveless captures the endorphin rush of new love, MBV sounds like the product of passion and deep connection weathered by decades of emotional turbulence. There’s a sense, particularly in songs like “She Found Now” and “New You,” that something is gone or has irrevocably changed, but that does nothing to diminish the love and generosity in the sound. They never really say it, you just hear it and know.