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Explaining the inexplicable: Loveless, in retrospect

What did Brian Eno mean when he described My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless as “a new standard for pop?” Pop had always been what it was, popular, because of its universality; its ability to pick the drowning bumblebee from its pool of lust or longing or whatever emotional sap it may flounder in and help things along with a few pithy words like “love is all you need.” Pop helps us feel like we’re all in the same boat (or hive, as it were), and for that reason, it communicates empathy.  

Interesting, then, that the late 1980s saw the popularisation of a genre in Britain that was quite the opposite of communicative. From post-punk rose a wave of neo-psychedelia that permeated the alternative rock scene and reignited the rich possibilities of sound obfuscation, a fire stoked by The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy. Bands such as Galaxie 500, Slowdive and Cocteau Twins would spend entire concerts in cahoots with their own battered Converse as they tinkered incessantly with pedals in an attempt to befuddle the ears of their listeners. ‘Shoegazers,’ they were called, and Kevin Shields, the mastermind behind the myth that My Bloody Valentine has become, stands before them as a pioneering individual. 

Loveless, turned 30 this month, is the seminal statement of sonic distortion. Contrary to conventional pop, this so-called “new standard” was as absent and removed as it was spine-shiveringly profound. Shields’ constant utilisation of the vibrato bar to bend pitch and his churning of the resulting sound through layers of reverse reverb, a technique known as glide guitar, yielded a blemished but sheer wall of sound, constantly wavering but always returning to galvanise itself. This was no mean feat. Nineteen studios, countless sound engineers, months of hibernation and lack of sunlight, close to half a million spent on mastering and production and the near bankruptcy of Creation Records was all it took to perfect this aesthetic. 

Yet the sound alone is enough to justify this investment. If Aestheticism had art for art’s sake; artistic beauty over all else, even truth, then Loveless has to be the experimental indie rock’s musical equivalent. This is sound for sound’s sake. Sensation renders sense but a cypher, and the rational makes way for the innate. Surface takes precedence over substance, but to such an extent that surface becomes substantial in itself.

This is a loud album. Their initial tours saw the band able to perform only in venues without decibel limits and in 2009 they began handing out disposable earplugs at concerts. Guitars shriek and bray on ‘only shallow,’ let loose like bottled energy uncorked, and then collapse in on themselves. ‘When you sleep’ offers a hook that twinkles above a bottomless ocean of churning pedal-haze and feedback. Every storm has its eye, however. The reason this album is so good to listen to is the calm it offers in the midst of its brilliant chaos. On its two best tracks, ‘Loomer’ and ‘To Here Knows When,’ all seems to settle, and one can sink deep. ‘Loomer’ is spare and sensual, with a chord progression that gently unfolds, expands and curls up again. On ‘To Here Knows When,’ one dense note warbles hauntingly like a great gush of wind through a tunnel, changing pitch only to accommodate its vocals. A shy tambourine that Shields claims took a whole week to record softly patters. Sounds crimp and fold, bend and crack, quiver and moan and weep and sigh. There are voices to be heard, but the real language here is the noise. 

Indeed, somewhere amidst this pink miasma are the vocals; distant and abstracted but definitely present. Shields and Bilinda Butcher, the closest thing Shields had to a co-contributor, sleep-talk under stormy skies in laconic whispers, breathing sweet nothings into gale force winds with equal parts fervour and fragility. The lyrics are virtually indecipherable, so listening too closely is somewhat futile, but when a snippet of meaning floats to the surface it shines with nondescript prettiness:

“Turn your head

Come back again

To here knows when.”

Who knows when? Here’s to knowing? I certainly don’t. Some irrational thinking part of me does though, so why not indulge it? And I think that’s the case with listening to this. Pick out the bumblebee first. Then drop the pebble into the pond and watch the ripples unfurl sinuously of their own accord.

Image via: Kim Erlandsen, Flickr