Tuesday, May 7, 2013
My Bloody Valentine: MBV (2013)
Mythologies are leaving us rapidly. Since we departed the Twentieth Century, it's my Andy Rooneyesque opinion that far too many dangling rock & roll threads have been tied up. Smile shouldn't have been released, nor whatever that Guns 'N Roses thing was called, and I'm not too comfortable with all these reunion tours, or with Jeff Mangum playing shows to hushed choral-cute singalongs, or with this or that post-punk titan burying the hatchet. And now Kevin Shields, the kind of guy who probably lets a dozen-deep line form behind him at Starbucks before he even decides if he wants a double shot, has done the unthinkable: he has followed up My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. He has done so without the aid of Island, or Creation, and with the aid of his actual real, not just in-name-only band. Colm Ó Cíosóig, Debbie Googe, Bilinda Butcher, everyone you can even think of save the mysterious "Tina" (no longer a mystery now, her name was Tina Durkin; another disappointment!) and everyone's favorite pseudo-Nick Cave, Dave Conway... with those exceptions, they're back!
I don't take this lightly -- this is one of my favorite bands of the relevant period, and Loveless, their magnum opus, remains for me probably the best rock album released by anyone since the '70s. (At the very least, it's down to Loveless and Remain in Light, real talk.) As you well know, the hype over the theoretical New Record by My Bloody Valentine began shortly after their prior release, which occasioned the group leaving a damaged-by-them Creation and leaping over to Island, building a studio and racking up time and money and a number of rock & roll horror stories about bloated budgets and outsized egos, and more than anything, Shields' ruthless perfectionism. Shields' errant sightings in the last two decades have been comically haphazard -- a Primal Scream record, a Yo La Tengo remix, the Marie Antoinette soundtrack -- and peppered with stories of frantic nerves over his aversion to deadlines. I'm not sure when I finally just sort of accepted that Shields was a brilliant bum but it was probably around the time that reissues of his band's two proper full-length albums (I still say they had four albums, but we're just counting here the two that no one disputes) were delayed by a year and change because of dissatisfaction with the "artwork."
In retrospect, bumming around had little to do with all this. Delaying and/or failing altogether to follow up Loveless was in fact a brilliant tactical maneuver, and a signal of Shields' self-awareness. Here for a change was someone who recognized that they'd captured lightning on a CD in a perfect storm of freakish opportunity: Shields was ahead of the pack in every sense in 1991, his songcraft was at peak form, his band was playing together brilliantly, and they were forging a sound that both captured the essence of its time and was remarkably forward-looking. Simple and pleasurable but confoundingly layered and intricate, the album was a masterpiece because it subtly challenged and expanded the way we listen to guitar music. Of course it stood on plenty of shoulders, from the Jesus & Mary Chain to (gasp, don't tell anyone I said this) U2, but it synthesized its ideas into an economical format and lent itself to an incredible degree of sensory pleasure and emotional investment.
But we're not here to review Loveless, are we? Long story short: My Bloody Valentine's intriguingly bare-minimum odyssey from 1992 to their mid-'00s reunion amounted to an acceptance that to attempt to duplicate such a conflation of perfect contexts and forces as Loveless will serve only to dilute the initial achievement. Sure, lots of great bands issue masterful albums and follow them up with little difficulty -- but Loveless is a special case, a permanent but highly specific moment etched in time, and its legend, in turn the band's mysterious disappearance, aids its enigma, adds to its appeal. Musical perfection or not, it's a piece of a larger drama and that made it more popular. It's only human.
The actual narrative of Loveless as hushed-tones masterpiece of a slowly dying form -- let's say, the great novel about its existence and place in the world -- really ended on the morning of February 2nd, when in one last all-too-appropriate gasp of the tantalizing unavailability of new My Bloody Valentine music, speculated over and discussed endlessly for over twenty years, the band's website crashed when they attempted to self-release their new album. It was the last moment of frustration, before anyone heard the first note of "She Found Now," the dying throes of that world in which a strange band gathered up a ball of energy, issued a record that changed some small part of a lot of lives, and then flew away in a cloud of dust. Once the world coped, it corrected itself, and Shields is a respectable man, he probably even wears a hat now; and the good news is that Loveless sits unchanged, but now there's this new actual music to deal with, an Active Recording Unit even, and remember that mysticism and cleverly skittish interview answers aren't what it's really about. It's about the music, man. Yeah.
Here's where we stop dead, and this is why this isn't part of the same book, or is nothing more than a contrived happily-ever-after epilogue if so: the record's a disappointment. But that's only stating the obvious -- it would have to be, right? That's the most explicit reason for the delay, one assumes, and one that must have become more crucial a part of its development as the years passed and Loveless snowballed from a cult item into an artifact widely regarded as massively important. Suddenly the mystery of Shields' psychology shatters -- he is still astonishingly savvy; he waited until precisely the right moment to release the lazily named MBV (or is it M B V or mbv, says the guy who refused to label his favorite record of the last five years w h o k i l l instead of whokill)... timing it so that most fans would be so happy to have the band back and sounding mostly the same as before that no one would think to expect much more.
Indeed, that's the best effect MBV really has on me: not that I ever felt like Shields et al. were my pals, but it is a bit like revisiting an old hangout and being bittersweetly relieved that the old gang is still kicking and chugging along. It's nothing like that ecstatic rush of recognition and heartfelt joy I felt when hearing Neil Tennant's voice for the first time in too long on Release because this isn't that kind of group -- but it's in the same category of sort of not realizing how much you missed something. But in the month I've been messing around with it, doing my best to delve into it and analyze it as much as Jesus Christ, the fucking new My Bloody Valentine album, for heaven's sake deserves, all I can really tell you is that I feel its primary utility in the long run will likely be "oh here are a few songs to tack onto the end of a My Bloody Valentine playlist" or "hey let's shuffle my entire collection of My Bloody Valentine MP3s, oh yeah, this one is kinda pleasant, this is from that reunion-ish thing they did" or, most of all, "this would make a good So Tough-style bonus disc for Loveless."
In this case, the disappointment is not one I'm bitter about -- the songs are nice, they're well-recorded, they're just nothing (to my mind) extremely special. As a person who once felt hungry to acquire and hear every note of music My Bloody Valentine ever released and is still thrilled to have all their minutiae in the collection, shouldn't I welcome new things to add to the pile, the first new things to add to it (bootlegs aside) since I became a fan? Of course, and I do! But artistically, I don't feel this is anything much more than a "hey, we can still do this!" assertion, and it doesn't necessarily need to be and I'm glad it's here, but that doesn't make it a Great Record. I'm thrilled people are happy with it... but I can't share the intensity of their happiness, maybe because the pull of nostalgia toward this sound for me has never been so strong as just an attachment to the many aspects of the music itself. You can't take me back to Loveless with merely a sound; Loveless worked because everything came together, and it was more than the sum of those things, and it was a moment of peak-level creative energy and everything just "worked" as it so supernaturally does sometimes.
There are hints of greatness here. No one who ever loved Shields' work can come away entirely unaffected by that intimate throbbing on "She Found Now," and familiarity is sometimes a warm and intoxicating thing indeed -- the only thing "new" to the band here is that crystalline guitar at center stage, and it eases us into things we probably recognize subconsciously, and Shields knows it. And I wish the whole record were as much of a revelation as "New You," which actually suggests an unexpected sort of evolution -- it condenses the band's signature sound, which they never really had until after the fact, into a propulsive and radio-ready modern rock number. Had they fussed around more with this bubblegum shoegaze, this could perhaps have been as interesting as Television's 1992 reunion record. But the Television record alienated many fans because it strayed too far from the group's established nature, so economically I understand why MBV feels more than anything like Good Grief, More Loveless (Only Friendlier).
It would've been possible for Shields and the gang to craft a really enjoyable album, though probably not a capital-G Great one, by riffing on previous sounds and tricks that are no longer so cutting edge and vital. The foremost reason they can't get that far, why this is the least of their albums aside from the unholy 1985 Birthday Party-Cure hybrid This Is Your Bloody Valentine, is, well, songs. And specifically, melody. With words buried and noise paramount, every previous effort of this incarnation of the band staked everything on melody, on an ethereal and immediate kind of songwriting that simultaneously relished weirdness and unapologetically embraced conventional notions of "beauty," arriving at them by the most surreal means then imaginable within the post-punk or "college rock" framework.
Not only do these recordings not seem terribly challenging, to them or to us, they don't carry a lot of innate appeal and often seem half-formed. The melody lines that were so full and expressive all the way back to Ecstasy and Wine are stunted here, something that never used to happen even on the band's b-sides and throwaways. "Only Tomorrow," for one, is like stopping halfway into "To Here Knows When" and giving up, "Sugarcube" guitar and supersonic-space "Telstar" Shields buffoonery and all. Even worse, the frantic silliness of "Wonder 2" again tantalizes with what sounds like a swooning and twist that could lead somewhere but then is distracted, dumped; you may as well listen to a recording of Katrina & the Waves attempting to practice and being escorted out of the building by a crusty landlord.
The songs aren't exactly weak, just a little underwhelming and one-dimensional; they seem more like fragments, like maybe a bridge or a chorus stretched out, which is hard to accept when there are only nine cuts. I wouldn't expect mere production craft to rescue a situation like this, because that'd make the album a pure gimmick, but with the long lead time and famously obsessive preparation I would have hoped for something more unusual and idiosyncratic than this: the broadest left turns we get from this once-cutting edge band are a barely-there track ("Is This and Yes") that gets points for maybe inventing the idea of a sparkly dirge; a pounding "If I Am" that's, okay, agreeably minimal; and the just-plain-goddamn-annoying "Nothing Is," which is, uh, a cute title. Kind of. Maybe. Not really.
Conversely, those are the biggest sour notes; no MBV fan will likely object to these songs loudly, they just don't seem to travel anywhere really new, and this does come across to me as a Loveless retread with both less interesting sounds and less beautiful and tricky songs. The repetition is most obvious on the aforementioned "Only Tomorrow" and the mostly passable throwback "Who Sees You," a blatant near-clone of "Come in Alone." Though it's been suggested in many quarters that MBV follows through more on the promise of Isn't Anything than Loveless, I only hear the former on the atonal roar of "In Another Way" and I'm not sure it's a great translation of what was making waves in 1988. The band's never sounded so out-of-time (in the wrong direction), copping "When Doves Cry" guitars and a mountainous high-drama synth line that probably gave Justin Vernon the jollies... but give it up: they've also never been this loose and "fun" before, at least not since they were cranking out adorably silly stuff like "Lovelee Sweet Darlene" and "Forever and Again."
It's some sort of evolution for Shields to take himself less seriously, at least as far as we know; frankly, what do we really know about him, his band, or his working methods even now? How much of this record really dates from anytime recently and how much of it is the outgrowth of legendary recording sessions for Island in the mid-'90s? Perhaps the band is right about everything and time will vindicate this. But I'm no longer sure I believe the delay was solely a result of ego, or perfectionism, or just working really slowly. We know Shields to be a maverick and an innovator, and perhaps it frustrated him that the advances and uniqueness of Isn't Anything were overshadowed by an album that came out just three years later. Only in the last few years, in the wake of a world of shrines to the subsequent record, has Isn't Anything -- which is a bold recording and really deserved its own spectacular moment -- begun to receive any level of real open attachment and championship. It's entirely possible that one day I will try MBV again and the world will open up to me and I will completely understand what they're getting at and why this expands on, reacts to Loveless rather than simply awkwardly extending it. For now: thanks for the music, guys, but I still say there was something to the notion of leaving well enough alone.