One begins outside. A lysergic crimson blur from which emerges a cropped, close view of a guitar and a bulbous form one can assume is a hand, lapsed in the strum. On both sides the same sanguine haze though slightly altered by warps in hue and composition. No titles, no insignia, just three words in small print aglow near the lower left corner: my bloody valentine.
After years of sitting with this record, keeping it close only for its aesthetic allure one may begin to understand the music it contains perhaps by hearing it displaced. At first, what streams from the stereo may appear an indecipherable code, a foreign cacophony. It can be appreciated for its pure otherness just as one not fluent in a script may be seduced by its graphic qualities. The lettering becomes an impenetrable surface to ponder. Consider the convolution of slashes and lines of Kanji or the blocky clarity of Hebrew or the celestial curvature of Arabic. But in hearing a piece plucked from the hazy bulk of
Loveless and presented on college radio, bracketed by the requisite indie-rock banality, it becomes some spectral broadcast. Not to say that this tangle of pitches and tones once considered too thick to unravel suddenly comes into focus and becomes intelligible. Rather, like all great art, one may begin to see, or in this case hear, the work on its own terms. Every sound is no longer translated into some comfortable clearness. Rather, one begins to love its pure, dense sonance.
Returning to the record for a full sitting, a close listen, its brilliance, once occluded by doubt or disbelief, gracefully transpires. The detached rattle of a lone snare pronounces a count-off, igniting a wave of sound so mangled and bent the instruments producing it defy identification. Between these bursts of gnarled fuzz an airy, androgynous voice fills the ether with a gentle, though fierce, melody. “Only Shallow”, the sole single, was accompanied by an equally dizzying video. Bilinda Butcher, the disaffected and pale chanteuse, coolly mouths the indecipherable lyrics. Kevin Shields, the architect, masterfully obscure in an anorak chops away chords in the background. The rhythm section toils away in a noble simulation of a rock band, Debbie Googe emotes every note plucked on her four strings while ColmO’Closoig pounds each beat with a pained grimace.
Such a presentation feigns the vertiginous narcosis contained within Loveless. Though altogether a fluid, immaculate surge of drones and reverberations, each song itself is masterfully drawn.
From the continuous, billowing fabric of sound, each composition swells and recedes, slow and sure as the tide, afloat in the steady flow. To illustrate: “When You Sleep”, a confluent symphony of lock-grooves, “Come in Alone”, a churning plume of concentrated feedback, “Sometimes”, a lulling thrum that mingles the muted jangle of nickel wound strings with muffled distortion, “Blown a Wish”, a sparkling whirl of timbres and aural spume. Best of all, though, may be album closer “Soon”. Boards of Canada have never heard this one, one can be sure of that. Also available on the Off Your Face EP (Sire), this song is the closest MBV ever came to dance-music. Though, of course, they executed it on their own terms. A seven-minute sprawl of shifting hums adrift over an entrancing, mechanic beat, Brian Eno once called it, along with penultimate track “What You Want”, the future of music. Granted he did go on to produce five James albums and release dreadful, digital pastiches of the very music he birthed two decades earlier. Regardless, this profuse praise is deserved.
Over a decade has passed since I have lived with this album, literally thousands of others have passed through my hands and shelves. Loveless remains the only sacred tome. Acquired on the cusp of adolescence it traced my awkward, giddy ascension into the realm of adulthood. And, most importantly, inoculated me with that insatiable need to attain further sonic knowledge, to listen with a ravenous, poriferan sentience. Even for its makers it remains insurmountable, a glorious flash that produced a long, slow fade.
For over ten years after its release, there would come perennial assertions that its follow-up was taking form, soon to released. In fact, only a pair of covers would ever surface: John Barry’s “We Have All the Time in the World” on the 1993 compilation Peace Together (Island) and “Map Ref 41N 93W” on 1996’s Wire tribute record Whore: Various Artists Play Wire (WMO). Along the way Googe would leave to form the marginal plod-rock outfit Snowpony with former members of Stereolab and Th’ Faith Healers. O’Closoig would take on the moniker the Warm Inventions and team up with Hope Sandoval, herself long displaced from Mazzy Star. Butcher would remain, alongside Shields, as the sole proprietors of MBV. For Shields there would be remixes (Hurricane #1, Lush, the Pastels) and collaborations (J. Mascis, Sonic Boom) leading eventually to his present tenure in Primal Scream. His work on the group’s 2000 release Xtrmntr (Astralwerks) is the most approximate murmur of MBVness so far, Word has it the Scream’s forthcoming, Evil Heat will have a far more profound stamp of the composer. Unfortunately, though, his live contributions to the group are negligible at best. Onstage, he possess a blank, glazed gaze, far-off and gone, as he incessantly turns knobs on a gamut of effects pedals, lost somewhere in the mix. Loveless, that strange transmission from some crepuscular distance, remains his greatest work. And arguably the best album the ‘90s every produced, or at least one of the most copied.
While Shields did not exactly invent shoegazing, he both redefined and galvanized it. Loveless made it clear that a band could not subsist on bathing every note in a wash of flange and delay. Each of Shields’s compositions crams more sonic complexity than any album in the genre’s canon. Each note glides and glows in a perfect, phantom twilight. And to this day groups throughout the world continue to project their own versions of Shields’s sound, whether snipped or in full. One may even proclaim that with Loveless the New Psychedelia arrived: relying as much on samplers as guitars, seeking to continuously broaden the palate of sounds presumed available, masticating and beaming every possible acoustic grain, depending less on performance and more on programming. Loveless, unlike an aged canvas whose texture or tint may have faded with time, remains a pulsing spectrum of infallible splendor, a standard to be met. It still sounds like the future, for now and ever.
// Notes from the Road
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