MY BLOODY VALENTINE, Loveless
Melody Maker, winter 1991
by Simon Reynolds
It was always going to be one of the year's most momentous and anxiously awaited records. Where their 1988 peers have either turkeyed-out (S. Youth, Buttholes, Loop) or gone into inexplicable hibernation (AR Kane, Young Gods), only My Bloody Valentine have upped the stakes with each of their sporadic releases. The hope was that the sequel to Isn't Anything, when it deigned to turn up, would unfurl a whole new frontier.
And that new frontier is sorely needed. While MBV have been semi-absent, they've also been omnipresent, as an abused, near-exhausted influence. While there's a grain of truth in the assertion that the Scene bands don't sound that much like the Valentines, it's not for lack of trying. All the Scene bands conform to the vague model that MBV coined - dazed-and-confused guitar-blur, swoony vocals, lyrics about the chaos of desire, etc. But it's equally true that not a one has come close to the MBV sound, that sensual turmoil that seems to seethe and smoulder under your skin. Instead (exempting only 50 per cent of Slowdive and Moose) the Scene groups make bliss bland, offer rapture-by-rote. Those of us who are a little harder to please have been hoping that this LP would shame the imposters back into oblivion.
Loveless isn't, quite, the record to do that. But it does reaffirm how unique, how peerless they are. On Loveless, My Bloody Valentine are the same as before, only more so - more lustrous, langorous, inchoate, phantasmic. Whatever umbilical cords that still tied them to the Velvets/Mary Chain lineage or the Byrds/Husker Du/Dinosaur continuum have now been wholly severed. Where your Rides and Chapterhouses are easy to dis-assemble into their constituent parts, MBV are an amalgam, an alchemical brew, a simmering alembic of all-new sound. They've never been more them.
Throughout Loveless, MBV sound pregnant, like their music is about to metamorphosise to a higher state that they themselves can't quite conceive, just as a liquid doesn't know what lies ahead when it's on the threshold of turning into gas. "Loomer" isn't 'rock' so much as magma, a plasma of sound that barely conforms to the contours of riff or powerchord. "To Here Knows When" , too, hardly qualifies as rock: the rhythm section is a dim, suppressed rumble; there's no riff or chord-sequence, just billowing parabolas of unfocussed sound (sampled feedback, actually) and a tantalising Erik Satie melody that fades in and out of earshot; Bilinda Butcher's vocal is at its most pallid palimpsest and eclipsed. "To Here" remains MBV's most suicidal song - commercially, obviously, but also in the sense that the group as human entities are dissipated, dissolved, drowned.
The phrase "to here knows when" sounds a bit like a 'koan', those paradoxes that Buddhists meditate on for decades until enlightenment strikes. Sticking with the Zen analogy, I'd say that MBV play tantric mantras. A mantra is 'a song without an author': on Loveless, MBV's physical presence as players is even more absent than on Isn't Anything, the group are just the faintest membrane, a feather on the breath of God. Tantric refers to a Zen sexual discipline, where intercourse is sustained indefinitely at the brink of orgasm, leading to an out-of-body, transcendental experience. On Isn't Anything and the preceding EP's, MBV went beyond the thrust and grind of phallic rock, to reach a polymorphous state of omnidirectional sensuality: a state that's been called having "a body without organs"
All of Loveless is suffused with an apocalyptic, pre-orgasmic glow, the the sound of an annihilating intimacy. MBV music is a smelting, melding crucible of love in which every borderline and boundary (inside/outside, you/me, lover/beloved) is abolished. Instead of the normal perspective of rock production (bass here, guitar there, voice there, with the listener mastering the field of hearing), MBV are here there everywhere; they permeate, irradiate, subsume and consume you.
"When You Sleep" is drowsy, dozy, heaven-scented pop that seems to be about hovering over the beloved, made dizzy by the newborn vulnerability. "I Only Said" is a cauldron of scalding sweetness, turning on a wincingly exquisite motif (sampled feedback again). On "Come In Alone", a similar motif is the only distinct, focal element in a asphixiatingly lovely bliss-bath; sluggish rhythms succumb like limbs in a viscous quagmire; overall, the effect is like drowning in honey. "Sometimes" is an aftermath ballad, Kevin Shields' vocal huddling forlorn in a crater overshadowed by a looming precipice of grunge. "Blown A Wish" is yet another Ecstasy-blitzed bower, sickly and soppy enough to give even Liz Frazer tooth-ache, while Bilinda's hyperventilated 'oooh's and 'aaaah's sound like she's got hummingbirds in her stomach. It's swoony, but in the end, it's too much: like staring into lover's eyes whose pupils are so dilated they're black holes pulling you to your doom. "What You Want" is another symphonic maelstrom that ends as a New Age haven of looped, lyrical flute sounds, like the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Despite its title, Loveless is very euphoric, very blissed, apparently devoid of a dark side; the jagged, Sonic Youth-y edges that previously hinted at voodoo, id-energies have been smothered in soft-focus miasma. And yet, and yet, the bliss gets to be scary, suffocating, and that's the fascination, the edge. MBV offer an appalling nirvana; you're subsumed in a primal "we", an overwhelming here-and-now, that has you gasping for air, aching for open space. After all this muggy amorphousness, it's something of a reprieve to hear the punch and (relative) clarity of the closing "Soon". The subsonic churn of the bass and drums locates a primeval funk groove midway between rock and house; the glazed mesh of guitars and vocals like spectral emanations, are implacable and impenetrable, even as they penetrate you, pass right through your body like a ghost.
If there's scope for criticism here, it's that while My Bloody Valentine have amplified and refined what they already were, they've failed to mutate or leap into any kind of beyond. "Soon" and "To Here Knows When" are the most radical moments on the album, and remain signposts to the future: the first posits an under-explored avenue of funk/noise fusion, the second proposes absconding from rhythm into ambient drift. Throughout Loveless, MBV teeter on the brink of the beyond. You can sense a scarcely imaginable infra-rock coming through their songs like a flame burning through a sheet of paper. You can hear this future explicitly in the inter-song doodles and a track called "Touched" - tantalising glimpses of where MBV could be at already. The prologue to "When You Sleep" is an eerie mosaic of overlapping drones that sound like a brain effervescing on an overdose of Ecstasy. "Touched" sounds like the muzak of the spheres: a whale singing the Delta blues is intermingled with what sounds like Radio 2 heard from a wireless at the bottom of a swimming pool. I'm a little wistful that MBV didn't devote a whole side to such ear-baffling studio sorcery.
But no worries, My Bloody Valentine have delivered. Quibbles aside, this is the mutha-lode: along with Mercury Rev, Loveless is the outermost, innermost, uttermost rock record of 1991. All you need.