Around 3:35 pm on Saturday, February 2nd, a lot of folks cancelled their evening plans. My Bloody Valentine, the legendary shoegaze alt-rock giants who released 1991’s seminal work Loveless (an album whose hazy, crushing swath of guitar feedback laid bedrock for an entire generation of indie rock acolytes) announced via a quiet Facebook post that the 21+ year wait for a sequel was coming to an end that night. Watching it actually materialize felt almost as dream-like as the Irish quartet’s distinctive style of sonic alchemy — if you’re a fan of indie music, it will probably be one of those “I remember where I was when it happened” events (seriously). Delayed for decades, m b v had achieved such white whale status that even when Shields told us for months that its arrival was imminent, it still felt shockingly unexpected.
Ironically, what ensued for most of us was a night spent staring at an HTML 403 error page. (Somehow, its only fitting that the most anticipated album of the new millennium be guarded by a message that said “Forbidden – access is denied.”) As MBV’s web site crashed from overwhelming demand for downloads, people howled. Fanatics feverishly scoured the net for downloaded copies — I scored one from a site hosted in New Zealand only to discover I’d landed a bullshit version containing nine songs of garbled static (albeit, with correctly named songs, which was a nice touch). The ridiculous outrage over MBV daring to host the album on their own fragile servers (“haven’t they ever heard of iTunes?” one fan cried), the cruel seed of doubt planted by one commentator who joked that m b v “sounded dubstep,” and the communal anguish at our inability to get what we’d already waited two decades for right this fucking second only served to remind us of the powerful mystique that still surrounds this band.
Then around 10:00 p.m. EST, the seas parted, the interwebs began working again, and the bits started flowing in. As soon as it arrived, I checked out from the chaos by closing down my web browser and settling into the album. Because as tempting as it was to join the mass listening party and conduct knee jerk Twitter dissections of each track, at some point it just doesn’t matter what the wisdom of crowds believes. It’s about what you feel — just like the old days, after you’ve escaped the mobbed record store with your hard fought LP, sped through midnight streets back to your apartment, donned your best headphones with trembling hands, and listened enrapt in the darkness.
Unsurprisingly and thankfully, m b v is a richly textured work — equal parts dense and feathery, mysteriously obtuse yet weirdly inviting, a layered sea swell of guitars whose timbres feel so fundamentally altered that they sound like other instruments — which is to say, it’s undeniably a My Bloody Valentine record. As you can imagine, this is a very good thing. Opener “she found now” marks an immediate return to the band’s signature strengths — picture Shields melding the ethereal, wispy yawn of “To Here Knows When” with the warm, fuzzed-out thunder of “Sometimes,” both of which were Loveless high points. “You wonder how you found now” Shields breathes fittingly, his voice encased in a hurricane of luxurious, melted noise. It’s a glorious album opener and a true aahhhhhhh moment when the My Bloody Valentine of the past is brought forward and completely absorbed into the My Bloody Valentine of the present.
With the aid of a tremolo bar, Shields creates a handful of those moments on m b v (“who sees you” and “if i am” in particular) where notes from simultaneously played axes seem to warble and magically bend around each other, creating melodic combinations that are hard to pin down, unprecedented even. He treats sound almost like paint, smudging primary color melodies into messy aural swatches that are speckled with new tints and hues. The onomatopoeia found in song titles like “she found now,” “is this and yes” and “new you” preface the way Bilinda Butcher and Shields use their voices as instruments, whispering words and elongating vowels to emphasize the music’s epic ebb and flow. The best parts of m b v still tap into something deep in your gut — a primal hiss and groan.
There’s also a breath of fresh air blowing through m b v’s tracks in the way they feel polished but not quite perfect. Much like a wizard pulling back the curtain, Shields drops away the eviscerating guitar peal in “only tomorrow” for a hair-raising split second; later, he allows the gossamer sonic knot of “if i am” to unravel into distinct instruments at song’s end. It’s as if Shields wants to remind you of the obvious but astonishing fact that people, not software, are actually making these sounds. Another unexpected revelation here is Colm Ó Cíosóig’s drumming — illness reduced him to an afterthought on Loveless, and he nearly suffered the same fate on m b v when Shields’ brother laid down the original drum tracks. But Ó Cíosóig’s eventually redid them, adding a saw-toothed, rhythmic ferocity that hasn’t been present since 1989’s Isn’t Anything. “only tomorrow” bursts with angry, off-kilter swagger, industrial juggernaut “nothing is” barrels along at breakneck pace, and “wonder 2” augments Shields squelches and shrieks with jungle-style percussion patterns.
As for the question everyone’s asking: how does m b v stack up against Loveless? The answer is: about as well as one could have hoped for. It’s excellent but not a second Mt. Everest. (did anyone really think it would be?) For one thing, the record’s last three tracks (especially “nothing is”) are somewhat one-dimensional, serving more as a set of bludgeoning, precisely executed ideas than the complex, nuanced compositions that Shields begins the album with, and synthesizer piece “is this and yes” acts as little more than a five minute palette cleanser. “new you” feels like a close cousin of prescient dance-rock hybrid “Soon,” which is awesome, until you realize that “Soon” sounded far more groundbreaking in 1991 than it does in 2013.
In all fairness, to assume that m b v would equal Loveless’s impact seems flawed by definition since a good part of Loveless‘s appeal lay in its uniqueness, and the majority of m b v’s appeal will surely be in that it recreates its predecessor’s signature feel. What truly makes m b v remarkable is that it faithfully captures the unprecedented emotion-conceived-through-sound aesthetic that made Loveless a genre-defining touchstone. Hundreds of bands have been trying to its duplicate that sound for two decades (spurred by advances in recording technology, years of hindsight, and rabid ambition), and no one has made anything quite like it. Until now that is. Amazingly, only Kevin Shields seems capable of coming within arm’s reach of his own Holy Grail.
Shields refers to m b v’s completion as something that “really frees us up, and in the bigger picture it’s 100% necessary,” which makes this album perhaps the greatest pressure valve release of all time. You get the sense that things are finally falling into place — Shields’ old catalog remasters paved the way for m b v, and m b v paves the way for My Bloody Valentine’s continuing evolution (an idea that is worth salivating over.) For a glorious 47 minutes, m b v finds Shields unhampered by the regrets that chained him to what could have been and the perfectionist impulses that prevented him from realizing what could be. You can almost picture him slouched over in the studio, toiling away on m b v for years, before finally pushing aside the agonizing “Forbidden – access is denied” message that’s occupied space in his head for nearly half his life. It’s fitting that we savor this present moment. m b v is the long awaited sound of Shields coming to terms with himself and finding now.
My Bloody Valentine – “she found now” – mp3