Counterbalance No. 74: My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless'

Counterbalance tiptoes down to the holy places and gives a listen to the 74th Most Acclaimed Album of All Time.

My Bloody Valentine


Label: Creation
US Release Date: 1991-11-05
UK Release Date: 1991-11-04

Klinger: I have to say, Mendelsohn, that I'm kind of kicking myself for having ignored this album for the last 20 years. I think that its dreamlike mélange of swirly guitars and super-plush instrumentation would have served me well in my more contemplative moments. And its poppier moments would have been a nice little kick in the butt when I needed it. But the fact remains that I did basically ignore this album, and I think I have an idea why. My Bloody Valentine is a terrible band name. I know they took their name from some horror movie or something, and I know "bloody" has a different connotation across the pond, but every time I heard their name I thought they'd be some Elvira-garbed bunch of horror-goths, and I was having none of that. [Actually, you're not too far off the mark, as MBV started out as a goth band -- Ed.]

In fact, when I settled in for this, I was most pleasantly surprised by how inventive Loveless is, and at the same time how accessible it is. Opener "Only Shallow" kicks like a Pixies track underneath the big fuzz (although Belinda Butcher's vocals are more tranquil than Kim Deal’s, even at her most heavily sedated), and there are pop moments that snap me out of my reverie throughout the album. Sure, it has its moments where its experimental sonic collages can seem daunting, but even those are at their core evocative of the sunnier side of psychedelia. I'm not necessarily saying that Loveless is entering heavy rotation at Chez Klinger, but I will say that this has been a surprisingly enjoyable time getting to know an album that I had completely overlooked because Kevin Shields and Co. chose such an unfortunate name. There's a lesson for young bands in there, Mendelsohn.

Mendelsohn: I know exactly where you are coming from, Klinger. There have been several bands that I've refused to listen to in the past due solely to their nom de guerre. So while we are here I'd like to formally apologize to these bands for not liking them sooner: Rilo Kiley, Josh Ritter (thought you were that other dude—the funny one), Mastodon, the New Pornographers (if it ain't broke, don't fix it), and the Band.

As for My Bloody Valentine, I like shoegaze fuzz-pop, but I never got on board with this album—it always struck me as too streaky, too hit or miss. As you noted, there are those great moments of pure pop bliss that come shining through the fuzz like sun breaking through the clouds, but there isn't nearly enough of those moments for me. After a while, I find myself waiting for the hooks again and I start to wonder, why is this record here? Is this another example of a record that was insanely popular in the United Kingdom? Or is it because MBV did the whole shoegaze thing first and have become the place holder for a largely forgotten, yet seemingly still influential, subgenre of rock?

Klinger: You know, that's another thing that kept me from digging into this album sooner. The very idea of "shoegaze" made me a little suspicious. I generally want my music to inspire me to do more than cogitate over my footwear, fascinating though it may be. But I guess that's just another one of those little cultural differences that make the United States' relationship with Great Britain so special. (I think their shoes are more interesting over there, though.) But getting back to your question, I don't believe this album was massively successful across the pond, and of course it had very little impact outside your college radio types.

It was, however, highly acclaimed from the get-go, and that's most likely what explains its presence here. Much as we try and understand critics' ulterior motives as they arrive at the consensus that’s compiled on the Great List, I think that the idea of the place-holder is more often the case with albums that either came out before the advent of the Critical Industrial Complex (Dark Side of the Moon as a stand-in for progressive/art rock).

But back to Loveless. I can see your point that the swoopier, more disorienting tracks like "To Here Knows When" might be overpowering, and I know I could use a few moments where actual audible vocals cut through the mix. But I'm not sure I'm listening to Loveless as a collection of songs as much as a mood piece—I'm almost thinking of the individual songs more as fluctuations in the overall sound of the album. Does that make sense?

Mendelsohn: Yes, that makes sense; Loveless does seem more like an extended suite rather than individualized cuts. But I'm not sure I'd go so far as to call it a mood piece. If you want to set a mood, pick up something with a little more definition, a little more savoir-faire. You say mood piece and I automatically go to something like Portishead's Dummy. That record will set a mood. I'm not sure what mood MBV was trying to set with Loveless.

But that's where my real problem with this album lies: there is a distinct lack of definition. The album, much like the music, plays too much like an amorphous wall of sound. The mumbled vocals drive me crazy. Just because you are staring at your shoes doesn't mean you have to sing through your shirt. I don't need guitars and vocals to ring out like a bell, but drowning everything in waves of distortion is a sure fire way to kill my mood. Don't get me wrong, I like what shoegaze has to offer with its crossroads between pop, psychedelica, and punk, but I'm more likely to reach for something like Japandroids or Tame Impala or even early Smashing Pumpkins -- the type of bands that tend to lean more toward their psychedelic roots.

Klinger: A few years back, I discovered that for whatever reason, Guinness doesn't give me a hangover. In fact it does the opposite—I wake up feeling like my brain is wrapped in warm fuzz. Loveless gives me something very close to that feeling, only in musical form. Plus the music sounds like songs that I hear in my Guinness-inspired dreams, all hazy and gauzy and very difficult to actually remember when I wake up. That's a kind of a mood, I suppose, so I think that's what I meant earlier.

Keep in mind too that, unlike two of the three bands you mention there, Loveless has had 20 years to burnish its reputation among critics, and that's going to count for a great deal on the Great List. Plus, is it possible that the muddling of the sound is part of the allure of Loveless? Hearing—or thinking we hear—the hooks in songs like "When You Sleep" or "Soon" can cause us to lean in more, and that leads to the kind of active listening that causes people to forge a bond. I'm not saying it would work for everyone—most people just want a more direct path to their poppy goodness. And I hate to keep comparing stuff to jazz (no I don't), but I think that's the same kind of process that's at work when people settle in for, say, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Mendelsohn: The flip side of that coin is that this album is just difficult to listen to. You say we should lean in a little and I say maybe MBV should have worked a little harder to up the listenability quotient of Loveless. Just the idea that some kind of elevated taste in music is required to gain full enjoyment out of this listening experience makes me a little ill—it’s borderline pretentious. Not that I don't completely disagree with you...

I'm also not suggesting replacing Loveless with a Japandroids record, but I think it really hits upon my overall problem with the whole idea of place-holder records. In the role of devil's advocate, I have to ask: must we be beholden to MBV as the pinnacle of shoegaze just because they did it first? Or were recognized for being the first to do it best (or better)? Let me restate that for clarification. If we were to take Loveless and another shoegaze record of quality, place them head-to-head out of context, would MBV still come out on top?

Klinger: Well, like I said, I'm not sufficiently familiar with this genre of music to make any claims one way or the other, except to say that the critics have spoken and mine is not so much to question why. (Of course I do still go ahead and question why occasionally anyway.)

But pretentious? Moi? No, all I'm saying is that "challenging" music at its best should reward you on every level. Casual listeners can be swept away by what it’s evoking in their minds (in the case of Loveless, a fuzzy-brained dreamlike state, possibly Guinness-related), while those who choose to lean in can discern the factors that make it work. In the case of jazz, that may extend into the realm of understanding music theory and how the notes and chords come together to create harmonics and stacked fourths and other stuff that makes my head hurt when I read a lot of jazz criticism. Similarly, you can listen to Loveless and consider how Kevin Shields and Colm Ó Cíosóig built their sound through distortion and tremolo and apparently sheer volume. On balance, then, I think My Bloody Valentine strikes the right balance between difficult music and accessible pop. Pity about the name, though...

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