Photo By: Haytham Nawaz via Apple Music
It is impossible to imagine the landscape of alternative music without the industry-shattering Loveless, which was released 30 years ago.
When My Bloody Valentine burst onto the scene in the late 1980s, no one knew what to make of them. Their almost mystical balance of the noisy and ethereal puzzled listeners with what sounded like some sort of mutation of Cocteau Twins’ dreamy pop, The Jesus and Mary Chain’s noise pop and a pinch of post-punks’ subversive lassitude.
What emerged was a group that were the leaders of a novel category of rock that was making waves out of the UK and Ireland, its name: shoegaze.
The name is quite literal, considering the excessive use of guitar pedals that kept their guitarists’ eyes fixated on their feet when performing. This is what accounts for the oceans of distortion, whirlpools of feedback and pure volume that are signature to “shoegazing” acts.
Although, My Bloody Valentine didn’t rely on pedals as much as their contemporaries due to Kevin Shields’ ingenious discovery that wavering a guitar’s tremolo bar — a pitch-shifting system which can briefly change the pitch on a guitar — brings the guitar in and out of tune creating the effect of it sounding like there’s thousands of guitars when there’s really only one. This use of a tremolo arm to produce endlessly multiplying string sounds, alternating between tuned and untuned, came to be known as playing “glide guitar”. Shields would go on to be credited as the pioneer of this technique.
Music critic Pierro Scarrifi classified shoegaze as, “the equivalent of zen for the punk generation.” They’re a kind of bridge between the psychedelia of the 1960s and the punk of the 1970s-1990s.
Scaruffi goes on to say that Loveless is, “the ultimate exploration of textures in rock music. Its stunning chaos can be viewed both as an enraptured ‘om’ to the universe or as a deranged scream in a madman’s cell or as a terrified paralysis in the face of a supernatural force. The album changed the meaning of the word ‘music’ by proving the equivalence between ‘noisy’ and ‘symphonic’.”
My Bloody Valentine’s debut LP, Isn’t Anything (1988) demonstrates this clash of noise and symphony in its infancy. Check out gems like “Soft as Snow (But Warm Inside)” and “No More Sorry” and you can already hear where the band is heading.
However, it’s on their legendary sophomore album, Loveless (1991), that the band perfected this formula. 30 years later and this record is still one of the greatest musical displays of the sublime. Along with being in most music critics’ favourite albums lists, this LP maintains a decent measure of popular staying-power, being memed pretty heavily to this day.
The production of Loveless cost an estimated $500,000, bankrupting the record label it was released under, Creation Records. It paid off though, because packed into the project’s 49-minute runtime is a textural masterclass that will get you just about as high as is possible without the use of substances.
It’s as frontman Kevin Shields explained in an interview he did with Fender, “it represented the whole transcendance thing, it was like ecstasy and smoking a lot of pot, and just basically connecting to other worlds, at the same time still being grounded in something quite strong.”
The band released a handful of EPs prior to Loveless’ release that foreshadowed the sound they were heading towards which they had teased on Isn’t Anything. Notably, the songs “To Here Knows When” off their Tremolo EP released in 1991 and “Soon” off of 1990s Glider EP, both made it onto the record and are two of the standout tracks, which is saying something considering the stiff competition.
Opening track “Only Shallow” is perhaps the most visceral cut on the record. The sound of four drumstick taps ring out before a blast of swinging and swooning guitar strings immediately hits with a wall of sound behind them. Guitar chords bend and reverberate in impossible ways as this, as it were, distortion of distortion pummels the listener to the point of enjoying the disruption rather than resisting it.
Because of the noise, it’s easy to forget there’s a sweetness inherent to these songs in the form of melodic vignettes sitting just below the abrasive haze. Take track five, “When You Sleep,” one of the lead singles, which bears one of the more rudimentary hooks and, in doing so, reveals what many of the tracks are expertly concealing: this is pop music at its core. More candy-coated chaos can be found on the shimmering “Blown a Wish,” which sees co-singer Belinda Butcher’s enchanting voice at its most powerful, humming in a way that both lulls and energizes.
Speaking of voices, Loveless is maybe the most androgenous record ever produced, as Butcher and Kevin Shields trade lines and often intermingle their heavily modulated vocals. In addition, this album, instrumentally speaking, bridges the masculinity of punk and the femininity of pop expertly; this might account for the transcendental feelings this record solicits from its listeners. It embraces ambiguity of identity at one of the most root sights of defining one’s self, gender.
Track eight, titled “Sometimes”, only features Kevin Shields’ vocals and his delivery on this track is the softest to be found on the record; accompanied by the most meek instrumental of the lot. Conversely, Butcher’s vocals tend to be on louder cuts such as “What You Want” and “Only Shallow”. “Sometimes” is the closest the record comes to a full-blown ballad and it’s a perfect example of this playful destruction of expectations of style based on gender.
“Loomer” is one of the more subdued moments on this album. It’s the closest the band gets to sounding like their material of the late 1980s, but it still maintains a level of complexity and grandness that keeps it aesthetically tied to this project.
Track three, “Touched,” gets the most flack from fans for being unnecessary. However, it’s a pleasing interlude that nicely inaugurates the middle section of the record, setting up what is the strongest song amongst the tracklist.
The song in question would be the aforementioned “To Here Knows When”. This song is easily the centerpiece of Loveless. It is a psychedelic masterpiece, submerging the listener in a kaleidoscopic tunnel of fleeting electronic textures and an overwhelming peripheral distortion that swallows in on itself endlessly. And then there’s that hypnotic tambourine which, due to the minimal use of drums, is the only thing keeping the song from flying too close to the sun (the tambourine notoriously took a week to record in order to meet the standards of Shield’s perfectionism). It’s a magical five-and-a-half minutes of indescribable bliss..
“I Only Said” is a triumphant blast-off of guitars that sound like buzzsaws cutting through the centre of the production. The hook consists of this whistling, high-pitched melody that’ll keep you coming back for another hit. This song’s upbeat mood contrasts nicely with the subsequent “Come In Alone” which is more contemplative, owning a darker tone that’s relieved only momentarily by the ecstasy of Butcher’s modulated coo on the chorus.
The record ends on a more grounded note with the final track “Soon”. On this song the guitars are more straightforward, with the rest of the instrumental taking a back seat to the deep, driving riffs, which in turn creates a sense of acceleration. It’s as if My Bloody Valentine are saying, “you’ve reached the end, just a little more to go.”
In the 30 years since its release, nothing on this album has aged badly and that’s what lends it this uncanny sense of purity. Even the most beloved classic albums usually have blemishes — be it a particular song, line or instrumental choice — that, even if it doesn’t sound terrible per se, heavily dates it. The jarring instrumental breakdown in the second-half of In the Court of the Crimson King’s “Moonchild”; Graduation’s downright offensive “Drunk and Hot Girls”; Kid A’s cheap Brian Eno worship on “Treefingers”; Nevermind’s angst-ridden “Smells Like Teen Spirit”; Revolver’s “Yellow Submarine” — and so on. Such a blemish is nowhere to be found on Loveless. It’s an album that is easy to place in the 1990s, but it suspends itself over the common musical clichés of that decade by being a focused, uncompromising piece of originality without any close musical analogue to this day.
My Bloody Valentine’s sophomore album single-handedly redefined the contours of rock music, carrying on the legacy of seminal bands such as The Velvet Underground.
Being released near the end of the 20th century, with the “death of rock” in the music industry beginning to become palpable as electronica and hip hop were on their way up to takeover the mainstream, it’s not an exaggeration to say that Loveless was the most impactful final word on rock music during its heyday.