On Saturday, February 2, a seismic shock ran through the music world. Out of the blue, 22 years after the release of their zeitgeist defining masterpiece, Loveless, My Bloody Valentine dropped a new album on its unsuspecting fans. The release was not entirely without warning, as MBV mastermind Kevin Shields had said earlier in the week that the new album would be released shortly but, given his less than stellar track record, few actually expected him to come through. When it actually happened, legions of ecstatic music nerds flocked to the band’s site, (predictably) crashing it as they scrambled to be among the first to hear MBV.
So, hype aside, how is the actual album? It is a difficult question to answer. Few albums in history have arrived with the sort of high expectations placed on MBV. With each passing year the stature of Loveless has grown, attaining near mythical significance among pop music lovers and placing at or near the top of numerous lists of the best albums of the 1990s. Shields himself has also garnered nearly as much “reclusive genius” cred as Brian Wilson (and much more than Axl Rose). As such, it is impossible to assess the merits of MBV without considering the long shadow cast be its predecessor.
There can be little doubt that if a new band released this album, they would be hailed as a formidable (if somewhat derivative) new player on the pop music scene. But this is My Bloody Valentine, the band that virtually invented the combination of massive swirling guitars, instrument squall, shimmering vocals, and loud/soft dynamic that has come to define “shoegaze.” Much more is expected of them. And that makes the lines between competence and excellence, greatness and genius much more difficult to parse.
On MBV the band uses their bag of tricks like old masters, weaving soundscapes that move swiftly from variations on their earlier work to tracks heavily indebted to drum and bass to some truly bizarre abstractions that defy neat classification. These shifts occur roughly sequentially throughout MBV. Early album tracks like “She Found Now” and “Only Tomorrow” almost sound as though they could have been written in the immediate aftermath of Loveless while the driving beats and noisy flourishes of “in Another Way” and “Nothing Is” sound like something out of the recent past (or imminent future). Indeed, album closer “Wonder 2” is so disparate that the song almost sounds like it is breaking apart at the seams, with wisps and swirls of My Bloody Valentine’s music dissipating into the ether only to be replaced by dissonant blasts of sound. However, these later tracks do not appear without warning. They have a clear (if vaguely defined) relationship to the more expected openers, almost like variations on (or evolutions of) an established theme. It is clear that this progression is intentional, but whether it is a progression towards some future end, a wholly contained statement, or simply a chronologically log of the development of the album is an open question.
Overall, MBV comes across as a meticulously crafted well thought out work produced by consummate professionals who have spent decades honing their art. But the album’s fascinating complexity also defies easy early impressions. It is a piece that can be appreciated and discussed now but will probably not be fully processed by individuals or the viewing populace as a whole until months (or years) from now, when listeners have had sufficient time to subconsciously delve into MBV’s dense sonic landscapes and unearth the treasures buried within…or perhaps find that, beyond a fascinating surface layer, there is little more to comprehend. The world waited 22-years to hear this album; hopefully it won’t take as long to truly listen to it.