I first heard My Bloody Valentine on a plane to New York City. It was my friend Richard’s first trip, his first flight in fact, and he’d brought along a Sony Discman and a stack of essential albums. He was wide eyed and ecstatic (giddy enough to mail a postcard that he went back out through the security line to find a mailbox, returning to the gate at last boarding call), but was just as stoked about the record itself. In the pressurized aluminum tube, with the dull roar of the engines outside the cold glass, I put those felt headphones (pre ubiquitous white iBuds) on and seeped into an entirely new world of sound. The low fidelity didn’t matter, the stewardess distractions (“peanuts or pretzels”) didn’t matter, and the whole thing was succinct enough it played through before we landed.
Shoegaze is a genre that I always loved, before I could put a finger on it, or name it. Back when I only had radio, I loved bands that (Bush, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins) fell into deep grunginess, swam in feedback, stepped out of their choreographed verse, chorus, verse. Back when I only had punk rock bands (NOFX, Rancid), and the chord progression was paint by numbers, I’d love those extended minutes of angry guitar, stomping the distortion pedal.
When a band takes a break for twenty years, writers will always ask the same question: is it the same as the old record? Is it a progression? Why did it take so long?
And while on the surface MBV feels like a B-side to Loveless, there a few songs that express a different flavor. The raw texture is the same. You have violently distorted guitars, liberal pitch-correction that veers into the atonal (before swerving back in line, drunkenly), lyrics of longing sung in a breathy hush (either Shields or Butcher).
But MBV feels a bit floatier. The guitar still has bite, but isn’t so rageful. Compare the churning buzzsaw (and rampaging percussion) of “Only Shallow” with any number of songs in MBV (“she found now”, “who sees you”). The energy isn’t there. A few songs even have a jazzy feel (“only tomorrow”, “if i am”, “new you”) that harkens back to Shield’s work on Lost in Translation, counterpoint to Bill Murray’s vacant gaze.
The highpoints of Loveless were when Shield’s contrasted a sharp, almost piercing melody on top of a vast field of static noise. “To Here Knows…” is a distant orchestra (furiously attacking a complex sonata) coming through busted wartime radio.* “I only said”: a chirping banshee wail leading a host of glassy eyed acolytes. “Soon”*: a teenager humming a hopeful tune before plunging into a maelstrom. It’s that juxtaposition that makes the music so listenable, so many threads being pulled along, and a wizard at the dial, tweaking the whole thing to a pure distillation of beautiful melancholy.
Most of MBV’s songs are taken straight on, as a single thread. Executed well, granted, but it feels more like a band recording straight through, perhaps a bit hungover, and certainly not 22 years of twisting the dials. The percussion is surprisingly prevalent (and mundane) for a good number of the songs (“new you”). Time signatures stay in place. The world doesn’t “warp”.
The last three songs on the record do have some unique features.
“in another way” is led by a tight drum loop, Belinda and a minor-key guitar jockey along a wheedling tune, and then a lead slashes its way in, vibrant and bright, harkening back to the best of Loveless.
“nothing is” sounds like something Trent Reznor would put out, industrial strength percussion, metal riffs cut into sampled chunks plotted on a graph. It’s impressive for its relentlessness.
“wonder 2” closes the album, and is probably the most experimental. It’s a heartfelt lovesong moaned earnestly by Shields, but woefully weak. There are a half dozen channels competing for attention, building the noise, the entire thing underlined by the roar of a jet engine. Into this booms a sinister riff, rising in tone, like a wing gaining lift, sinking back a few feet, but moving incredibly fast, mach 1, screaming across the sky.