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My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless redefined how guitar music could sound

With its swirling walls of guitar distortion, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless was one of the most revolutionary records of the '90s

My Bloody Valentine completely re-imagined what guitar music can sound like
My Bloody Valentine completely re-imagined what guitar music can sound like

The year 1991 was quite an epochal one for pop music, with seminal releases by trip-hop pioneers Massive Attack, thrash metal titans Metallica, indie slacker icons Pavement and hip hop renegades N.W.A and 2Pac. In September, Nirvana dropped their major label debut Nevermind, sweeping away a decade of overblown hair metal and glam rock in one fell swoop, and igniting a grunge frenzy so fervent that it invited comparisons to Beatlemania. My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless—released on 4 November 1991—didn’t generate quite the same level of buzz. It didn’t even make it to the US Billboard charts.

But with its swirling Escher-ian walls of guitar distortion and alien, androgynous sexual tension, Loveless would end up being the most revolutionary record of the decade. Thirty years on, the Irish band’s sophomore LP remains one of the most innovative and inimitable releases in rock history. It has inspired a cult of devotion amongst at least two generations of fans, musicians and critics, who speak of it in reverential tones littered with endless superlatives: transcendent, sublime, visionary, peerless.

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Even before its release, a mythology of sorts had started building around the band’s long-awaited second album. Their 1988 debut Isn’t Anything—a hallucinatory out-of-body trip of an album that combined the gothic noise of the Jesus and Mary Chain with the manic weirdness of early Sonic Youth—had received widespread critical acclaim and inspired a wave of shoe-gazing imitators. But while their label Creation Records hoped to quickly capitalise on that momentum, My Bloody Valentine—or, rather, notoriously perfectionist bandleader Kevin Shields—had other ideas.

As the recording process stretched on and on—taking nearly three years across 19 different studios, and allegedly almost bankrupting their label—rumours swirled in the UK music press. There were murmurs that the band was pivoting to hip hop, that Shields had lost his marbles, that he was writing music in a room full of chinchillas and barbed wire (the last one is partially true, though it happened after this record was released). Creation Records second-in-command Dick Green had a nervous breakdown trying to get the band to finish the record, his hair turning grey almost overnight.

The result of all that Sisyphean toil was an album that completely re-imagines what guitar music can sound like. Shields wields guitar distortion like Jackson Pollock wielded a paintbrush, crafting songs as richly textured as a Max Ernst painting. His guitar-playing on Loveless—especially the technical innovation of using the tremolo bar to bend his barre chords in and out of tune—is the closest anyone has come to representing LSD’s time-dilation effects in sound. The relentless waves of guitar noise overload your brain’s processing centres until it feels like something has pushed time slightly out of joint.

A quick stuttering drum beat kicks off album opener Only Shallow, before being buried under a cloud of narcotised guitar riffs (the drums quickly recede to the background, where they stay till the closing track, Soon). Bilinda Butcher’s dreamy, indecipherable singing hangs back in the mix, less a vocalist than a ghostly presence haunting a washed-out soundscape. Loomer abandons the rock song structure entirely, with its squalls of disintegrating guitar distortion trying—and somehow failing—to overwhelm the sensual siren-song of Butcher’s ethereal vocal melodies. This tension between the fragile grace of the songwriting and the ragged physicality of the album’s sound creates an atmosphere of terrific—meant here in the original, awe-inspiring sense of the word—beauty.

Looming over the record is the disintegrating relationship between Shields and Butcher, referenced in the album title as well as much of its lyrical imagery (the bits of it you can decipher, at least). Loveless is the sound of love slipping through your fingers, of a relationship teetering on the edge. In Touched—one of only two tracks featuring then-ailing drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig live, with the rest being constructed from samples of his drum patterns—atonal guitar moans and swells in discordant disharmony, like a fun-house mirror version of sexual intimacy.

The majestic grandeur of To Here Knows When is built on the sands of doubt and indecision, Shields crooning When you say “I do”/ Oh, but I don’t believe in you. Hypnagogic album closer Soon, with its bright dance-floor ready percussion and sinuous pitch-shifting guitar riffs, is a hopeful last-ditch attempt at rapprochement.

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We know now that it wasn’t meant to be. The relationship—and the band—dissolved soon after the record’s release. Seemingly overwhelmed by the pressure of following up Loveless, Shields became something of a recluse, a 1990s version of post-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson (though the band would eventually reunite in 2013 and release the excellent follow-up m b v).

But the legacy of Loveless continued to grow. The album opened a whole generation’s ears to the possibility of sound as sound, paving the way for artists as diverse as industrial metal band Jesu, avant-garde indietronica act Black Dice, and ambient producer Christian Fennesz. You can hear purloined bits of its musical DNA in the music of bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Mogwai, Radiohead, U2 and Silversun Pickups, not to mention the legions of shoe-gaze bands that followed in its wake. But despite its countless (highly successful) children, nothing quite comes close to matching the glory of the original. Loveless was and remains that rarest of rare things in popular music: the quintessentially perfect record.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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