Looking back on 30 years of My Bloody Valentine’s enduring masterpiece
Thirty years ago today, My Bloody Valentine — a band with one prior album and a handful of EPs to it credit, unleashed Loveless. It would not just be the definitive album in their career, but the definitive shoegaze album.
Influential even though nothing that followed sounded quite like it, Loveless also caused the group’s label to drop them months after its release and led its architect, Kevin Shields, down a series of rabbit holes and dead ends that kept fans waiting decades for a follow-up.
It was a woozy, hypnotic marvel that found beauty in distortion, reverse reverb and feedback, an enveloping work where the vocals seemed like cooed dispatches through the fog of a dream, with its words mostly unintelligible.
In retrospect, the problems guitarist/driving force Kevin Shields had in creating a follow-up shouldn’t have been a surprise, because Loveless itself didn’t have a smooth road to appearing, making the final result appear even more miraculous.
Creation Records pictured the album — a follow-up to 1988’s Isn’t Anything (a classic in its own right) to follow a similar creative timeline. That album was recorded over a relatively short six weeks. Any expectations Creation head Alan McGee and second-in-command Dick Green had of that happening for Loveless were quickly dashed.
Starting in February 1989, there were multiple sessions with diferent production and engineering people at several different studios, puncutated by periods of time off (enough time that Shields told Select magazine in 1992 that, in some cases, he’d forgotten specific tunings he’d used).
A couple of EPs came out as stopgaps — Glider in February 1990 and Tremolo in August 1991. Both contained eventual Loveless tracks in different versions — “Soon” on Gilder and “To Here Knows When” on Tremolo.
Even by the time the album was ready to be mastered, it was done on a machine that threw the album out of phase. Shields had to come in and in and put it together from memory, basically turning a one-day job into one that ate up two weeks.
But in the end, the album was finally finished at a cost of, according to rumors at the time, £250,000. Shield himself insists the cost was closer to £140,000 (which translates into a shade under $500,000 in 2021 dollars). Creation was not exactly flush with cash at the time and, according to Shields, the guitarist had to live in a squat at one point because he was out of money. Additionally, there were delays because the tapes had been confiscated with no backups available.
Under what at least appeared on the outside to be chaotic recording conditions, it might not have been a surprise had the album itself reflected that. But that wasn’t the case, because Loveless reflected Shields’ vision that had started flowering on Isn’t Anything and continued after its release.
The final album is very much Shields. He played all of the guitar and bass. Guitarist/vocalist Blinda Butcher wrote the lyrics for “Only Shallow,” “Loomer” and “Blown a Wish” and co-wrote “To Here Knows When” with Shields.
Drummer Colm O’Cloisig contributed the short instrumental track “Touched,” which bridges “Loomer” and “To Here Knows When.” He endured physical problems that left him unable to fully play the drums until the latter sessions. He supplied drum patterns that were sampled for use on the album, a process that delayed things while they figured out how to do it.
Even 30 years later, the result of Shields’ vision is a mindblower without a wasted moment — best taken in loudly and all the way through its 48-plus minute runtime.
Oh, yes, loud. Pretty much anyone who’s seen My Bloody Valentine live could include them on the list of loudest shows they’ve ever seen, the kind that could knock plaster off venue walls, especially in the notorious extended section of “You Made Me Realise” in which the band repeats a single chord into an all consuming wall of noise for over 20 minutes during Loveless era shows and scaled back to seven or so during more recent tours.
That instantly recognizble rat-tat-tat kicks off opener “Only Shallow”, then careening guitar spreads over the main riff (which has that trademark bendy note courtesy of Shields’ beloved tremolo bar). Then Butcher sings, well, who knows? There were no lyrics included and while they can easily be found these days, if ever there were an album where lyrics were beside the point, it’s Loveless.
Butcher’s breathy, evocative cooing over the verses is a soothing contrast to the almost-battling guitars in the wordless chorus.
The lyrics being mostly unintelligible is a reminder that the more one listens to Loveless, you realize one of the things Shields was up to.
The background and foregrounds are often switched. The vocals are farther down in the mix, as are what would be main riffs. The variety of sounds that could be shading and accents elsewhere are pushed up more up front, taking the lead in some cases and in others fighting it out with everything else in the mid-range, turning the album into an immersive auditory Rohrshach test.
In its own way, Loveless is also a testimony of the artistic possibilities of sampling as much as any hip-hop or electronic albums of the period. Shields is mostly sampling himself, rather than anything from a crate of old records.
For example, “To Here Knows When”, according to Shields, is 80-percent built off one guitar track that he sampled and layered, tweaking the sampled portions to create different sounds. The layering results in a looping swoon, as the guitar swoops and out like an old bomber plane – repeatedly flying over you while you’re sitting in the flight descent path.
Likewise, “I Only Said” is built from one guitar track, one clean and one distorted, but put together so it sounds like more.
“Blown a Wish” is Loveless at its loveliest, with Butcher’s vocals at their most audible, an ethereal blanket invitingly going through the guitars, which almost seem like a wordless counter vocal (Shields was fond of making certain guitar parts sound like anything that wasn’t a guitar).
“When You Sleep” is a shot of pop bliss, about as straightforward as the album gets. There’s more of a driving drumbeat and one can even make out some (but not all) of the lyrics as Shields and Butcher harmonize, but the track isn’t exactly an outlier with its heavy guitar sounds and little musical hook (perhaps playing the part of a woodwind) alongside the wordless vocals after each verse.
The neat trick throughout is that even at its loudest and most dissonant, Loveless never derails into songless noise. There’s melody in there with the various vocals and feedback samples. Shields’ tremolo technique, keeping the bar itself fairly loose and holding it with his palm, meant the bends had more ebb and flow.
“Sometimes” is what passes for an acoustic ballad, even though it clearly isn’t. You can hear what sounds like acoustic strumming as a base, like trying to see it at the bottom of the deep end of a pool. But, unlike say, the Smashing Pumpkins who would have put that in the foreground, it stays underneath, as Shields’ vocals bob along the sea of distorted riffage on top as you hear what sounds like keyboard woodwind within earshot, like something audible just out of your line of sight.
The album wraps up with “Soon” , the utterly hypnotic track that had shown up in dance clubs prior to Loveless thanks to an Andrew Weatherall remix of the EP version that played off its recognizable parts — the looping riff, Butcher’s wordless vocal sample, the guitar tracks that sounded like violins (built from a part Shields recorded in one take at the end of an all-night session right before the Gilder EP was mixed).
Intact on the album, that seemingly endless drum loop with that wall of distortion pulls you in and those aforementioned tracks and vocals keep you tethered.
By the time it pulls back for the loop to fade out over the last 20 seconds and the album ends, after listening to it front to back, I can still flash back to hearing it for the first time and the first words that came out of my mouth then — “Holy fucking shit.” One suspects multiple musicians had a similar reaction. One could hear traces of Loveless in years to come, albeit nothing with quite the degree of layering and sonic experimentation over a full album that Shields had pulled off.
As for the answer to “What can My Bloody Valentine do for an encore to THIS?”, the reply was “Not a lot.”
They signed to Island after Creation dropped them, but Shields, ever farther down the rabbit hole, reportedly scrapped more than one possible version of the follow-up. By 1997, Googe, O’Cloisig and Butcher had all left and Island had cut off the money tap for further recording.
How much the pressure of trying to follow-up Loveless had an effect, who knows? Shields eschews the word “perfectionist”, preferring to say that he wants to get things right and that he doesn’t want to force things if he’s not in the right headspace to create.
Shields kept busy with a variety of other projects — as a guest musician, as a producer, collaborating with the likes of Primal Scream and Patti Smith and supplying some music for the “Lost in Translation” soundtrack.
But things were pretty much nonexistent on the My Bloody Valentine front for almost 10 years.
The band reunited for shows starting in 2008, but still, no new music. That was changing behind the scenes as Shields had started to revisit what he’d recorded in ’96 and ’97.He realized material held up better than he’d thought and could work as a My Bloody Valentine release rather than as a side project.
Twenty-one years and three months after Loveless, m b v came out with short advance notice in February, 2013. The album was one of that year’s best even if it did play like three EPs stitched together rather than a cohesive whole.
Since the m b v tour, the group’s kept a relatively low profile. Shields said in 2017 that they’d been working on a fourth album with an eye towards releasing it the following year.
There were shows in 2018 that included a couple of new untitled songs in the setlists, working versions of what as intended at the time for an EP.
VIDEO: My Bloody Valentine “new song 1”
VIDEO: My Bloody Valentine “new song 2”
This year, he told Karen Leng of Double J in Australia that the pre-pandemic plan had been to release two albums, one before a tour and the other during.
Those plans fell by the wayside and Shields also spent a lot of time working on remasters of their prior material for vinyl reissues, which came out earlier this year on Domino.
The plan (or is it hope?) is that the first album, which Shields has hinted will be more simple and song-based will be finished first and the longer, perhaps much more experimental album is on a less specific “it’ll be as long as it needs to be” track.
So, for now until…next week, sometime in 2022 or in 15 years, we might get albums four and five from My Bloody Valentine. While we wait, there’s still Loveless — to explore, to get lost in, to marvel at the palpable sense of discovery as Shields explored new territory in a way that, 30 years later, it still feels like its own glorious universe.
VIDEO: My Bloody Valentine “Only Shallow”