Twenty Years Ago: My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless'
1991 was the year My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless became the underground standard bearer for independent rock.
It’s hard to believe that 1991 was 20 years ago. In the wake of that anniversary, many have been harkening back to reflect on the top records of that year: U2’s Achtung Baby, Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Metallica’s (self-titled) "Black Album" just to name a few. Yet as grunge and the new wave of punk slowly emerged, an entirely different sound was inching over the horizon. Just three years from the brilliant Isn’t Anything, My Bloody Valentine (named after a Canadian horror film), had produced its masterwork, Loveless, a record of such sheer grandiosity and nuanced ingenuity, that it would become the reigning influence of independent rock, as well the expected candidate for every rock critic’s record collection, for years to come. It would also be the last musical statement from the band to date.
Bandleader Kevin Shields invested innumerable hours of studio time trying to create new and unprecedented sounds with this record, at times emerging from all-day sessions with absolutely nothing on tape. The process also found Shields barring any employees with Creation Records from access to the sessions. It was this kind of secluded and extensive work ethic that ended up nearly bankrupting the record label. However, it also ended up providing one of the most profound musical statements to emerge out of that year.
With a single snare drum roll, the opening track “Only Shallow” erupts with catastrophic intensity, as Kevin Shield’ personalized “backwards reverb” guitar creation swirls hysterically with a sound akin to an ambulance siren underwater. In a way it was an opening moment every bit as revolutionary as the opening chords to Nirvana's “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Loveless abounded with a deafening shoe-gazing attitude and My Bloody Valentine drowned the tracks of the album with mysterious textures of abrasive guitars and angelically-twisted instrumentation, all sewn together with an obsessive desire for detailed sound manipulation. In short, it was, and still is, unlike anything else you’ve ever heard.
In fact, most of the record is the complete antithesis of what one expects from a “normal” or “modern” record. The vocals are elusive, leaving the lyrics unintelligible. The listener is left grasping onto the faint and haunting melodies of Kevin Shields and guitarist/vocalist Belinda Butcher for most of the album. The massively compressed drums are smothered and at times barely audible, abandoning the rhythm of the songs to the swaying and disorienting ocean of enigmatic arrangements.
“Gloomer”, a song awash in multiple layers of uninhibited distortion and the chiming sounds of howling feedback is a prime example of this, while songs like “I Only Said” and “When You Sleep” breathe majestically with ethereal pop melodies. The songs on Loveless tend to drone and drag sludgingly, as they stubbornly resist forward motion. On a song like “Sometimes” (which ended up in the film Lost in Translation) this is most apparent. The multi-guitar ensemble directs the whole song at a slow and contemplative pace, while Kevin Shields sings his concealed lyrics beneath the wake of sparse, yet dream-like sonic textures. Loveless was something altogether new when it arrived, and the music community took hold of it with a fervent embrace. Ambience-maestro Brian Eno joined that fray declaring the track “Soon” to be a new standard for pop. He would remark at the time that it “is the vaguest music ever to have been a hit".
The guitar work alone on this album is cause for a serious listen. Kevin Shields single-handedly added an entirely new vocabulary for how one can think about the use of electric guitar. Released in November 1991, Loveless never charted in the United States and only reached 24 on the UK charts when it was released, but its effects have been far reaching, winning countless devotees as vast as Phish, Sonic Youth, and Guided By Voices. It remains as one of the most profound musical statements of 1991 and, 20 years later, its impact is no less startling and compelling.