It’s a “Bowie’s back!” moment for shoegazers. Twenty-two years after falling silent with Loveless, My Bloody Valentine have unexpectedly surfaced with a new album, which materialised on their website over the weekend. Fans who gave up on the band’s perfectionist leader Kevin Shields ever making new music again are rubbing their ears in disbelief. Has the Harper Lee of indie really rediscovered his songwriting mojo?
mbv (Shields is typically pernickety about the title’s lower-case) picks up where Loveless left off. “she found now” features the same electric throb of feedback, looped guitars and fey vocals that the band perfected on their 1991 album. The effect is at once beguiling and mystifying, like being warmly greeted by an old friend who doesn’t explain why he hasn’t been in touch for two decades and hasn’t changed in the interim.
The effect transports us back to My Bloody Valentine’s heyday, back when the mighty architectonics of Loveless and its 1988 predecessor Isn’t Anything towered over British indie music. On these albums singer/guitarist Shields and his bandmates – co-singer/guitarist Bilinda Butcher, bassist Debbie Googe and drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig – devised a dreamy yet noisy form of rock, one in which massive swells of feedback coexisted with hazily sung, emotionally indeterminate vocals. This passive-aggressive psychedelia inspired numerous clone bands and the semi-mocking label “shoegaze” – so-called for its practitioners’ habit of staring moodily at the ground while performing.
The style arose from Shields’ obsession with sonic tones and textures. The New York-born, Dublin-raised musical auteur ran up huge recording bills making Loveless, almost bankrupting his record company Creation as he searched for precisely the sound he wanted. His perfectionism became the stuff of legend, bracketing him in pop’s pantheon of Troubled Geniuses with the likes of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector.
In fact, Shields’ obsessive nature has proved a debilitating artistic weakness. Periodic public outings have shown that the desire to make music remains: he was an associate member of the band Primal Scream for several years and has collaborated with Patti Smith. My Bloody Valentine reformed in 2007, though hopes for new material dwindled as Shields spent years fussing over reissues of the band’s recordings.
mbv’s opening salvo leads us to expect a Loveless 2.0; as though Shields, pushing 50, has finally accepted that he has painted himself into a corner. However, as the album unfolds it transforms itself into a remarkable act of renewal.
“only tomorrow” and “who sees you” continue with the woozily powerful guitars and numbed singing; it’s the sound of directionless energy and stuck grooves. Then a change in direction comes with “is this and yes”, in which winking electronic effects, wonderfully modulated organ tones and Butcher’s cooing vocals give genuinely new expression to My Bloody Valentine’s distinctive sound.
The latter half of the album consolidates the breakthrough. “new you” swaps indeterminacy for a chunky, upbeat tone of certainty. “in another way” finds the band accelerating through a wild squall of noise with brutal drumbeats and contrail-like guitars. “nothing is” and “wonder 2” bring it to a close with fusillades of beats, distorted vocals and a mammoth guitar tone that strains to escape the boundaries of the song.
Contrary to Shields’ perfectionist reputation, there’s a wild, undisciplined feel to the music. It’s the sound of a band that was hopelessly stuck managing, against all expectations, to free itself from the quagmire.