Tuesday, November 15, 2011
ruminations (well, sort of): 20th anniversary of 'loveless'
Oh, the irony. I missed the 20th anniversary of the release of My Bloody Valentine's 'Loveless,' which has been one of my two favourite records since I first heard it when I was 16 years old (the other one is the Cure's 'Disintegration' in case you missed all the fuss when it was reissued last year). I'm a bit hesitant to wax too philosophical about it, namely because it's been done to death quite frankly. If ever there were a record that was hopelessly futile to write about then 'Loveless' would be it. Fitting, I think, that there is little to no fanfare. A remaster has existed since 2008 (contrary to popular belief Kevin Shields upheld his end of the bargain and actually finished the 'Isn't Anything' and 'Loveless' remasters, for whatever reason the record company refuses to release them. The last rumor I've heard is that the writing of liner notes is what's holding things up) but has remained shamefully unreleased. Truthfully I have them both (as does anyone who posts or lurks on the MBV forum) and I never found either to be that much better than they were on the first go-round- I'm one of those hopeless nerds who has the original vinyl for both records. The analogue remaster of 'Loveless' does sound a hair better than the original CD, but the difference is negligible. This always seemed quite the underscore to the futility of improving something like 'Loveless.' Jason Pierce was smart enough to recognize that his year spent mixing 'Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space' was worthwhile as the original album wasn't in any need of remastering when the time came for the 2009 reissue.
I digress. Yes, the album is unbelievably influential. Then there's the storied tale of its troubled creation. There's an entire book filled with useless writing and fantastic quotes from the entire band (check out the 'Loveless' book in the 33 1/3 series- Kevin Shields' quotes alone make it worth a read even though the style it's written in is incredibly obnoxious), so go read it if you feel like reliving all of that drama. The truth of the matter is that it all matters so little when listening to the album. True, it remains unmatched as a fully-conceived sonic achievement, but there are other records with similar credentials in the history of pop music. I'd like to talk about the songwriting on the album as that is what very few people mention when talking about Shields and My Bloody Valentine, which is a shame as he is an undeniably talented songwriter. If the songs weren't able to hold up to the test of time it wouldn't matter how labored over they had been in the studio. No one would care. The 16 year old me that was listening to that copy of 'Loveless' with my friend were completely silent as 'To Here Knows When' played and it was a mixture of the beauty of the song itself in addition to the overwhelming uniqueness of what we were hearing that is what bowled us over. 'To Here Knows When' remains possibly my favourite song ever mainly because I find the melodic content and the way the chords melt into each other in incredibly subtle ways so captivating. It's almost like hearing music for the first time- it doesn't seem like it came from reality. How someone was able to wrestle their vision into reality as clearly as they have here is simply astonishing- not just in terms of production, but guitar playing and in bringing a song like this to fruition. I've gotten my hands on a guitar tab of the song that actually sounds accurate (this is always a tenuous thing with My Bloody Valentine songs) and to me the beauty of the song becomes all the clearer when played on an acoustic guitar. It's clear that the song was conceived every bit as carefully as the production itself. What I find so continuously disappointing about all of the writing about MBV and Kevin Shields is how often this fact is overlooked. The strange siren-like whines that open 'Only Shallow' not only grab you with their formless weirdness, but also serve as a melodic hook as do the vocal melodies in the song. There is a subtlety at work that so often goes unnoticed. Considering how indecipherable the actual lyrics were, the melodies were impossible to deny even when they were simple moaning 'ooh's and 'aah's (which is quite a bit in the MBV catalogue).
What's more, each song on the album seems to have been just as carefully conceived. When stripped of its similar production elements the songs are all quite different in their melodic structure and a lot of the time the arrangements are revealed to be rather standard. Another tab I have for 'Sometimes' reveals it to be something that wouldn't sound out of place in a strictly folk context- it has a folk-styled open tuning. 'Loomer' has some truly mind-boggling dissonant guitar madness going on in it that somehow manages to enhance its beauty rather than destroy it. The songs that most resemble each other on the album are 'When You Sleep,' 'Come in Alone,' 'I Only Said' and 'What You Want' mainly due to the fact that they are fairly standard (well, in their own way) electric guitar-based rock songs. I've always found those four to be the weakest on the album mainly because they are the most similar and they don't quite measure up as songs when you compare them to similar songs from 'Isn't Anything' or something like 'Honey Power' off of the 'Tremelo' EP. In context this is not as negative of a statement as it seems. They're the type of songs that I'd often hear on records that I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate until hearing them played live. A lot of them even have clearly detectable source material- namely Hüsker Dü and the loud/quiet dynamic of the Pixies and yet their execution is anything but formulaic. 'When You Sleep' has that weird, surfy flute-sounding melodic loop and that very strong verse vocal harmony/chord change overlap that's incredibly striking, 'I Only Said' is built on relentless repetition interrupted by that glittering bridge change that comes out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly and 'Come in Alone' is built almost entirely on lumbering, loud guitars that are bent into hooks despite themselves. Again, all just as reliant on songwriting and dynamics as on production. One of the main elements that makes the music on 'Loveless' so distinctive is the way that Shields builds the chord structures of his songs around alternate tunings that allow him to achieve the types of melodic dissonance and texture to achieve what he is after musically and emotionally. I've always found My Bloody Valentine songs to be a pretty good source of emotional content and mood even if I can't understand the lyrics. One doesn't always need to understand the lyrics of a song to connect with its emotional pull. Listen to a full Cocteau Twins album and it's difficult not to connect with on an emotional scale despite the fact that the lyrics are most likely a bunch of baby talk. It's the way that the melodies are structured that are getting the emotion across. Production only serves as enhancement.
So please, for the love of god, just stop going on and on about all of the sensationalist nonsense surrounding this album and just enjoy it for what it is- a fully-conceived album of beautiful and rewarding songs.