My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ Is Stranger (And Better) Than Its Reputation
One of the most acclaimed records of the '90s is even more impressive than you remember.
Back in 1989, Kevin Shields skipped around London recording studios with his band My Bloody Valentine and set to work making Loveless, a masterpiece, and freaking the fuck out of his record company.
The story of Loveless‘s recording, as with so many of the stories associated with the cult band, has become something of a legend. Shields, an exacting genius, scraped over his group’s sound with a precision that bordered on the obsessive. It took 19 different studios to lay the thing down to tape, with Shields sometimes deciding over the course of a mere couple of hours that the space was wrong for his record.
Along the way, the band racked up eye-watering studio fees: there have been various reports over the years that Loveless cost a quarter of a million dollars to produce. Shields has dismissed those rumours, along with other infamous stories about his behaviour — according to some, he spent the period writing the record in a room surrounded by chinchillas and barbed wire. “I was pretty crazy, for sure,” Shields told The Guardian, years later. “It was a very manic, overdrive kind of state, but it never got out of control.”
And yet no reality check that Shields has tried to provide has cut down the mythic status of one of the most well-received records of the ’90s. Loveless is out of Shields’ hands; a self-perpetuating machine shrouded in tales of madness and obsession that has become shorthand for the demands required of genius. Like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, the listening public will believe about the record what it wants to believe, and cite the intensity of the music itself as proof.
But listening to Loveless two decades on, one does not have the unpleasant experience of encountering a work that is less than the sum of its stories. If anything, Loveless is bigger and weirder than its reputation implies; a sloughed-off beast, oft-imitated, but never approached.
Through A Glass Darkly
Loveless is ostensibly a shoegaze record, the same way that Abbey Road is ostensibly a British invasion record. In actuality, such a label does nothing to capture the intensity nor the invention of the thing. Sure, Loveless is drenched in reverb, as records released around the same time by bands like Slowdive and Ride are. And sure, the lyrics are mixed low, the human voice used like a melodic tool rather than a means of communication, as had become the norm for the era.
But Loveless takes these qualities of the scene and pushes them further. It’s not just that Shields’ and Bilinda Butcher’s voices are hard to hear; it’s that the musicians themselves remain actively unsure of what they were actually singing on the record’s strangest stretches.
The result is an album stripped of most recognisably human qualities. There’s nothing “relatable” about Loveless; no easy handhold. If you are moved, you are moved by the sheer emotional weight of the thing — an emotion without a precise analogue to the real world. Even the lyrics that are (mostly) coherent have had the definition sanded off them. “And I’ll see you tomorrow,” Shields sings on ‘When You Sleep’. “And it won’t be long.” He might as well be reading out a weather report.
Then there’s the record’s scale. Music very rarely has spatio-temporal properties, but Loveless feels impossibly wide; like a horizon, stretching on forever. That’s not to say anything about song length. ‘Loomer’ is somehow three minutes long and as towering and rusted as an abandoned wrecker’s yard. Even ‘Touched’, a minute-long instrumental, contains more room than most bands manage in their entire career.
Indeed, playing Loveless from start to end is akin to the experience of being dislocated from time. Songs bleed into each other; motifs rise and fall like individual rhythmic patterns in a wave of television static. Keeping track of where you are, or what’s coming next, is a foolhardy exercise. Better to lay back, and to let it happen to you.
Long Live Loveless
This week, Loveless finally hit streaming services, news that dropped alongside the announcement that the band had signed to Domino Records, prompting a wave of speculation that Shields and co. are preparing to release a new record.
What that potential fourth album is set to sound like is anyone’s guess. m b v, a Loveless follow-up released two decades after that masterpiece first dropped, was its own strange, lopsided thing. It was distinctly My Bloody Valentine, of course — as with so many geniuses, it’s hard to imagine Kevin Shields sounding like anyone but Kevin Shields — but it pushed the melodic qualities of the band’s sound into new and unfamiliar terrain. My Bloody Valentine always sound the same; My Bloody Valentine always sound completely different.
That’s the freedom that comes when you release a masterpiece like Loveless. With that album, My Bloody Valentine scaled a mountain that they had no need to ever turn back and consider again. It is a singular achievement in modern experimental rock; a record that genuinely feels like something beamed in from another planet. Even if you believe that you know the contours of the thing, listen to it again. It’s not just you that will have changed. Loveless has too.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee and My Bloody Valentine obsessive who tweets @JosephOEarp.