[6 February 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The notion of a music career is a weird thing. Not because musicians make money, but because it implies some sort of steady work. We expect bands to crank out an album every two years or so and if they take longer or go away for a while, well then anticipation for what comes next becomes a heavy burden. We conflate our want for a new record with the artist’s need (or want) to make one since, because this is a career, it’s something they need to build with a consistent output of work.
So since it’s been two-plus decades since the last My Bloody Valentine record, that long layover is just one of many hurdles this album has to climb built on our expectations. Those of us whose formative music years aligned with the release of Loveless harbor a particular fetishism and/or romanticism of all things ‘90s-rock. There’s also two decades of crowning Loveless a classic and calling My Bloody Valentine shoegaze pioneers as if that name meant anything, as if they weren’t just a great rock band, as if they didn’t map out their own territory without our help of coining dubious genre names.
It’s no wonder, then, that the band’s site crashed when the album went up. Because we’ve all waiting too long, right? We want this album as soon as we can get our hands on it. Well, that’s part of it. Sure, we don’t wait in line for midnight releases at Tower Records anymore, and the immediacy of the digital release is more an expectation than a surprise at this point. But we also hit refresh over and over and paid all kinds of money for downloads and LPs because we want to be a part of something. Because the release of this album is its own little corner in music history. We’ve waited and hoped and now it’s come and we want the staring-at-our-computer-screen-for-hours war stories to prove it.
Beneath all this, of course, m b v is just an album. One that wasn’t in the world and now is. It’s not going to confirm or deny any of the claims we’ve made about this band. It’s not going to get us to re-imagine what they’re about. And if anticipation is part of the worth of music then, no, it’s not worth waiting 20-plus years. But then again, neither is any other album. So to judge this album on the time passed since Loveless is to miss the point entirely.
Because the point is this: this is a very good album. If we hadn’t spent years touting the band’s shoegaze sound it would even sound fresh and invigorating. But some of the record feels, on first listen, like it picks right up where its predecessor left off. And it’s hard to argue with that kind of notion when you hear opener “She Found Now”. It doesn’t have the crashing drums—those come later—but it is grinding and roiling with thick walls of guitar that melt somehow with Kevin Sheilds’s airy, echoing vocals. There are angular riffs that slice through a gauzy wall of distortion. There are clean run downs somewhere in there. But it all meshes into an impossibly charming tower of hazy sound. It’s still alarming, even though you know what to expect, because for all their followers, no ever quite nailed their message the way they could.
The big thing about m b v, though, is there is a more focused feel to this record on the texture front. The excellent “Only Tomorrow” has squalling beds of guitars that back Bilinda Butcher’s vocals—and she’s still the best singer here—perfectly. But as her vocals fade out, a clear, tumbling riff asserts itself, taking over and steering the song forward. It’s a more propulsive move than we’re used to from the band, and it doesn’t reinvent their chug so much as it twists it into something sprier. It also leads us to the twanging, warbling guitars of “Who Sees You”, which both blend back into the layers of sound and make them more distinct. “Is This and Yes” trades the guitars for airy keys and reminds us of the bittersweet tones wafting under all that distorted hiss. The song isn’t a shocking shift, but it is a reminder of the breadth of the band’s sound, one that seems so fragile even when it’s piling on you.
The album really takes off, though, with the spaced-out, relatively lean pop of “New You” and the charging drums and thumping bass of “In Another Way”. Here they feel more like a full band than anywhere else on a record that can sometimes feel overwhelmed by Shields’s guitars. In fact, it’s an album sometimes a bit too enamored with its own ruckus. “Only Tomorrow” starts slow because the drums feel buried. “Nothing Is” is hard-charging, but also a confusion of fuzzy chords and treated snare drums that never takes shape. Closer “Wonder 2” is the best mesh of sound and structure, blending Shields’s voice with bending guitar lines and skittering drums. It’s a bit heavy on the drums—check the airplane swooshing of one layer of guitars—but it’s also a grand finale.
m b v stretches My Bloody Valentine’s sound without changing it much, and you may not be surprised to find out this is an excellent headphones record. But that’s no back-handed complement. Once again, My Bloody Valentine has somehow made this huge rock sound feel intimate, and it’s a pleasure to let the songs wrap around you as you tease out the layers in the same way the band members seem to wonder all over this record—the lyrics are full of questions, the titles themselves feel both incomplete and exploratory. It’s an imperfect document, but one alive with energy. Even when it trudges, the band feels eager to find something in the space. The attention to detail here is heavy but not overcooked. In short: it’s a record that deserves to be more than the end of a long wait, warts ‘n all.
But it’s also bound to fall prey to our want to react quickly to art (says the guy penning the review). It’s too early to tell what this record is, how important it is, how good it could really be. We’ll all throw our opinions out there, and they’ll all be informed by the past. But if all this time passed between records can serve one purpose, it might be that we don’t have to connect this back to Loveless. That this doesn’t have to be a continuation of a band we deemed essential. It doesn’t have to be the next step in a career. Maybe it could just be a new offering. Maybe that’s all it has to be.