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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

What remastering My Bloody Valentine reveals about a brilliant, prickly band

Illustration for article titled What remastering My Bloody Valentine reveals about a brilliant, prickly band

My Bloody Valentine’s 1991 album Loveless is generally considered a masterpiece by the people who determine such things, and I have absolutely no beef with that. Loveless is a painstakingly crafted, visionary piece of music, fusing and elevating multiple trends that had developed in alternative rock in the late ’80s and early ’90s, turning moody noise-pop into an all-consuming expression of chaos, yearning, and something almost like triumph. I’ve devoured and adored Loveless in the 20 years since its release. And yet it’s always hard to forget first love, which is why my deepest, truest MBV-related affection will always be held for the album that preceded Loveless: 1988’s Isn’t Anything.

I can’t remember exactly how Isn’t Anything came into my life. I might’ve read about My Bloody Valentine in one of the British rock weeklies that I used to pore through at the University Of Georgia library when I was an undergrad, or I might’ve borrowed the album from one of my hipper friends, or heard it in one of Athens’ downtown record stores. All I know is that from the moment I first listened to Isn’t Anything, it leapt into heavy rotation, and stayed there pretty much right up to the day when Loveless came out. There were albums back then that I listened to over and over while hanging out with my friends, and albums that seemed to be permanently lodged in the CD players of the local restaurants and bars. Isn’t Anything wasn’t either of those. It was a Walkman album, listened to almost exclusively through headphones while I walked around campus or rode the bus between classes. Even on a gorgeous, sunny day in the Classic City, there I’d be, listening to the sound of the universe melting through my dinky foam-padded headphones, not caring much if anyone near me was bothered by the bleed.

For years now, My Bloody Valentine’s main creative force, Kevin Shields, has been promising to remaster and reissue Isn’t Anything, Loveless, and four contemporaneous EPs—which is an event MBV fans have been eagerly anticipating, if not exactly expecting. Since Loveless came out, Shields has been stingy both with new material and old. Contrary to perception, though, he hasn’t been a recluse. He’s given interviews, collaborated with other musicians on their projects, and even reunited with My Bloody Valentine for a brief tour and a couple of compilation tracks. But he’s also reportedly recorded two or three albums’ worth of new MBV material that he’s chosen not to release. And then there’s the matter of these reissues, which were announced so long ago that their persistent absence has been a running joke, in the great rock ’n’ roll tradition of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy and Neil Young’s Archives.


But Chinese Democracy and Archives eventually did come out, and now so have the My Bloody Valentine remasters—although because this is MBV, the release hasn’t been a bumpless one. For starters, while the remastered editions of Isn’t Anything, Loveless, and the four EPs are available in the UK (via Sony), there are reportedly no plans at the moment to release them Stateside. That’s annoying, but hardly an insurmountable obstacle. It’s not like CDs have region codes; and it’s not too difficult to get music shipped from overseas in the Internet commerce age. What’s more bothersome is that the discs contain little in the way of true rarities, and sport no liner notes to speak of: no appreciative essays, no recording information, no personal reflections, nothing. The EP’s 1988-1991 set does contain three previously unreleased tracks, but nowhere in the packaging does it say when or where they were recorded. The Loveless set contains two discs with two different masterings of the album—one from the original DAT master, one from a 1/2-inch analog tape—but according to the blog The Power Of Independent Trucking, the discs have been mislabeled. And there’s still a wealth of pre-Isn’t Anything material that remains out of print. EP’s 1988-1991 begins with the band’s first Creation release, the terrific You Made Me Realise, but prior to My Bloody Valentine’s association with Creation, the band released a handful of EPs that rarely get mentioned as part of the MBV story.

Of course there’s a good reason why the pre-Creation music has been largely ignored: Those early records aren’t very good, nor do they represent the My Bloody Valentine that fans know best. I have Strawberry Wine and Ecstasy—the two 1987 EPs that precede You Made Me Realise—and while they’re not terrible, they’re largely indistinct from the morass of noisy, jangly music that was spewing forth from the UK indie scene in the mid-’80s. The three most influential bands at that time and place were The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cocteau Twins, and The Smiths, and there are traces of all three—J&MC in particular—in songs like Strawberry Wine’s “Can I Touch You,” and Ecstasy’s “The Things I Miss.” But outside of the overall loudness, there’s not much on those records that point to what lay in store. Had Shields not begun experimenting in 1988 with ways to shape noise, My Bloody Valentine would likely be remembered as just another here-and-gone group from the C86 era.

The title track of 1988’s You Made Me Realise EP represented a momentous advance. Ostensibly an aggressive (but melodic) garage-rock track with gothic and psychedelic overtones, “You Made Me Realise” is transformed by its arrangement, which cranks the guitars up to a shriek, isolates Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s “inside voice” vocals such that they’re distinct and audible even as they battle the much louder instruments, and breaks in the middle for 40 seconds of one-note drone and hiss. The rest of the EP introduces some of the tremolo-activated wooziness and muted thrum that would soon become staples of the My Bloody Valentine style. The subsequent Feed Me With Your Kiss EP continues to play with new ways to put across some familiar indie moves, such as on “I Need No Trust,” which sounds like a Velvet Underground song played backwards.

And then: Isn’t Anything. From the beguilingly titled opening track “Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)”—with its start-stop hip-hop beat and pulsing, atonal guitars—Isn’t Anything announces itself as divorced from conventional structures or genres. Drummer Colm Ó Ciosóig is the unsung hero of the record, slowing down and speeding up in the middle of songs without ever sounding out of control or overmatched by Shields and Butcher’s more extreme excursions. (In fact, one of the reasons I may ultimately like Isn’t Anything better than Loveless is because Ó Ciosóig barely plays live on the latter; his drums are mostly sampled and looped.) The album as a whole is violent and messy, but also beautiful, with dreamy interludes like “No More Sorry” and “All I Need” opening little doors to the beyond, and offering an escape from the brutality of the punkier numbers. The My Bloody Valentine of 1988 wasn’t utterly radical or out on a limb; American post-hardcore bands like Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Volcano Suns had been exploring the place where noise, rock, and pop intersect for years before Isn’t Anything, and multiple European bands had as well. But a song like MBV’s wrung-out, electrified “I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)” isn’t cribbing from anyone else’s notes.

I doubt I heard Isn’t Anything any earlier than 1989, so while there was a three-year gap between the actual release of Isn’t Anything and Loveless, for me it was more like two, made even shorter by the releases of the Glider and Tremolo EPs, which introduced the future Loveless tracks “Soon” and “To Here Knows When,” alongside a handful of very good songs that didn’t make it onto Loveless. The EPs didn’t really give much of a hint of what to expect from Loveless, though. Glider’s “Don’t Ask Why” and “Off Your Face,” and Tremolo’s “Swallow,” are all trippy and distorted, but relatively light and clean compared to the albums on either side; while Tremolo’s “To Here Knows When,” “Honey Power,” and “Moon Song,” along with Glider’s title track, are all much heavier and odder, but still not as intense as what was to come. Glider’s “Soon” is especially deceptive. With its rave-friendly beat and snappy riff, the song made it sound as though My Bloody Valentine was about to unleash an album meant for club kids.

When I heard Loveless for the first time, though, suddenly “Soon” made sense. The song is just so gloriously exultant, resolving the tension that’s built up throughout the rest of the album. (It’s akin to the placement of “Good Vibrations” at the end of The Beach Boys’ fractured Smile. Like Isn’t Anything, Loveless begins on a punishing note, with the driving, disorienting “Only Shallow,” and then proceeds to get weirder, with three straight songs that are all layered drone and murmured multi-track vocals. Then Loveless brightens up a little with “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said,” two songs that layer cheerful-sounding loops over the thick, pulsating noise, before the album crashes back down with the monolithic “Come In Alone” and the stark “Sometimes.” The album wraps up with the dreamy “Blown A Wish” (the most Cocteau Twins-like song My Bloody Valentine ever recorded), the raucous “What You Want” (the most Isn’t Anything-like song on Loveless), and the sweet, sweet “Soon,” which marries sandpaper guitars to resounding chime, compelling the listener to ascend—or at the least to move.

Though Loveless took years to complete and cost a fortune to record—largely because the band kept firing engineers and switching studios in pursuit of the right sound—Shields has always said that the reports of his mania and of My Bloody Valentine bankrupting its label were overblown, and that when broken down by actual recording time, Loveless’ numbers were fairly reasonable. Anyway, what it took to get the album made shouldn’t matter that much to the listener (aside from whatever deleterious effect it may have had on Shields’ ability to make another My Bloody Valentine record). With Isn’t Anything, Shields amplified and intensified the shambling indie-rock style of the time, and with Loveless he stepped up even further, transforming his new sound into a mini-symphony, with movements and a climax. The album wasn’t a big seller, but it became hugely influential, inspiring some of the mega-bands of the ’90s—most notably Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M., and Radiohead—to experiment with different guitar sounds and textures, as well as other indie-rockers like Lilys and Neutral Milk Hotel, and a dozen UK “shoegaze” bands to boot. Yet for all the hubbub about the sound of Loveless, there are actual songs beneath the murk, such that when the Athens band Japancakes recorded an instrumental cover of Loveless in 2007, the album was fully recognizable.

These new My Bloody Valentine remasters sound fantastic—a lot of depth, not too shrill—but I’m not a true audiophile, so I couldn’t distinguish much difference between the two versions of Loveless. (I direct you back to The Power Of Independent Trucking, which gets more into the sonic qualities.) As for the much-anticipated extra tracks, EP’s 1988-1991 includes two good instrumentals originally released as a bonus 7-inch on Isn’t Anything, a couple of songs from Loveless-era singles—one of which is a mind-blowing 10-minute version of “Glider”—and those aforementioned three previously unreleased songs, “Angel,” “Good For You,” and “How You Do It.” The last is the best of the bunch, a pummeling rocker with some of the good old MBV guitar-grind.

But to be honest, the rarities are primarily of interest strictly because they’re rare, not because they’re essential. And that’s been true of My Bloody Valentine in general. Isn’t Anything and Loveless are both excellent albums—two of my all-time favorites—but their reputation has undoubtedly been enhanced to some degree by Shields’ lack of productivity in the decades since. The paucity of new music has pushed both old and new fans back to those two albums, which are mighty enough to withstand repeated listening.

And I do have a confession to make. For a long time, I’ve boasted about seeing My Bloody Valentine at a club in Athens in 1992, opening for Dinosaur Jr., but to be honest, MBV wasn’t all that good live—at least not on that night. It was impressively loud, but the music was hard to make out through the roar, and the band wasn’t exactly dynamic onstage. I don’t consider this a knock, though. I like that these musicians have weaknesses, just as I like that Shields comes off in interviews more as a normal guy than a crazy person, and I even kind of like that the reissues aren’t perfect. What I’ve always appreciated about My Bloody Valentine are those soft, human voices beneath the tumult. It’s heartening to know that it’s just regular, flawed people behind such astonishing noises.

The big moment of any My Bloody Valentine show from the early-’90s heyday was the performance of “You Made Me Realise,” during which the band would extend the one-note break for upwards of 10 or 15 minutes. My Bloody Valentine played that song when I saw the band in Athens, and I can tell you: It was riveting, at first. Then after a couple of minutes, my friends and I started to chuckle a bit at the audaciousness. Then we got a little annoyed. And then bored. Eventually, the audience started drifting over to the bar while Shields and company kept droning away onstage—as always, as ever, making us wait.