The Time of Myths
To call MBV merely one of 2013's most-anticipated albums is to drastically undersell it. The third My Bloody Valentine LP long ago ascended into the realm of indie myth. After leader Kevin Shields blew out deadline after deadline in the '90s —eventually shelving the recordings by the turn of the millennium— the possibility of a follow-up to 1991's immortal Loveless dwindled. In fact, Loveless grew more and more revered, with each passing year, simply because of the fact that it was never succeeded; its perfection symbolized by the fact that it could never be followed up. Like The Avalanches or Neutral Milk Hotel, fans could content themselves in that one album, again and again, never worrying about tomorrow.
But, suddenly, now tomorrow is now upon us. In 2008, when My Bloody Valentine reformed and started touring again, there were hints that maybe the lost album wasn't so lost. In 2011, Shields founded his own label, Pickpocket, and promised new material to come. By the end of 2012, the album was said to be imminent. But after being burnt so many times, fans remained cautious. And, then, suddenly, come February, it was here: M B V, the long, long, long-awaited third album from My Bloody Valentine.
Shortly after its release, someone asked me if I'd heard the new My Bloody Valentine album (a question which may be the 2013 equivalent to 2011's What do you think of Lana del Rey?). The word struck me as odd, because whilst this is, indeed, the 'new' My Bloody Valentine album, so much of it is clearly very old. Which is, for most fans, anything but a criticism.
The opening three tracks on MBV —"She Found Now," "Only Tomorrow," and "Who Sees You"— sound like they could've been lifted from Loveless studio sessions, with all those elemental shoegaze elements in place. There's the fuzzy, whiting-out guitars; the breathy, bashful mumbles, trailing into indistinction; the overdriven production that feels as if its wobbling. It's clear that these aren't the sounds of a reunited My Bloody Valentine, in the 2010s, trying to capture the old tone; but that the bulk of these recordings actually were from back-in-the-day, the LP's 20 year gestation made manifest in an opening flurry of 'classic' My Bloody Valentine sound.
For fans who've been waiting years for this, the fact that it sounds so unmistakably like their heroes at their best is something to rejoice. Few would've been shocked had the band, after so many years away, not returned with anything approaching either Loveless, or its just-as-beloved predecessor, Isn't Anything. And yet here they are, managing to live up to expectations two decades in the making. This is its own kind of miracle; something to treasure; there now a third MBV LP on hand where there once was only two. Yet, once the initial thrill of having new old My Bloody Valentine material wears off, the question is: what kind of record lies beyond that initial rush of excitement?
Of Time and Timelessness
And this is where trying to immediately weigh up the worth of MBV proves difficult; the album sounding a lot like records that've been building a critical reputation for a quarter century, yet not actually being the same thing. MBV exists in an interesting place, philosophically: it's new, but clearly not; it's old, but not nostalgic; it's an album that, effectively, defies time. Which is different to saying that it's timeless; a word that's critical short-hand for an old album that still sounds good to contemporary airs, that persists over the years.
Hearing those first three, Loveless-like tracks will cause piques of ecstasy in many listeners circa 2013, but what if those songs had come out circa 1995? When shoegaze was deemed passe, and the English press would've been ready to rake Shields over the coals for blowing hundreds-of-thousands of pounds on an album that sounded just like the last one? Rather than being praised for sounding just like Loveless, wouldn't this material have been condemned for it?
Not continuing to put out albums —to diminishing artistic and critical returns— was a wise strategy for Shields; turning his band into legends, his perfectionism into folklore, his cache of collected recordings into myth. MBV is, it seems, the best bits of those recordings cherry-picked, and assembled into a record that progresses in clear chronological order.
The Fluff of Legends
"Is This and Yes," the fourth song on MBV, marks a clear step away from the classic shoegaze template; its noodly keyboard minimalism actually having a similar air to the work of My Bloody Valentine-inspired post-shoegazers Seefeel, and a band whose mid-'90s output came after Shields had largely retired to begin work on the record. "If I Am" returns MBV to a more-familiar MBV sound —Bilinda Butcher and Deb Googe cooing dreamily over to-and-fro sloshes of washed-out white-noise guitar— but it doesn't have the same of-the-era feel; sounding instead like more a piece of drifting fluff; the 'opposite of rock'n'roll,' indeed.
Shields spent much of the '90s telling people that he had gotten into drum'n'bass, and as the album progresses forward, you can hear that influence, the rapid rhythms of "In Another Way," bombastic breakbeats of the pummeling "Nothing Is," and the helicopter din of "Wonder 2" amounting to another movement. These are the final three songs; and completely the album's flow through classic shoegaze, electronic ambience, forward to a feverish, frenetic release on close.
With the power of myth and mystery on its side, it's easy to turn MBV into a narrative: to see its chronological progression as a 'story' of a band struggling to deal with perfectionism, expectations, addiction, and craziness. Yet that story is too clean a reduction; makign MBV seemed like more of a chaptered patchwork than it actually is.
You may be able to hear a distinct passage-through-the-years in the songs, but it's not 100% accurate; Shields was, after all, still working on all this music in 2012. But the fact that MBV seems worthy enough to create its own myths —rather than just live up to long-held ones— seems symbolic. The odds that the third My Bloody Valentine album could be anywhere near as good as the first two were tiny; but, somehow, MBV has beaten them. It's a heroic return, and one that will only help to grow the legend.
Release Date: February 2, 2013