Monday, 20 October 2008

Album Review: 'Loveless'

I do seem to have set myself a bit of a challenge with my album review this week – how to get across in words the ethereal listening experience that is My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless? The only way I can think to do so would involve some sort of cack-handed synesthesia – ‘like the sight of eddies of dust caught in the beams of white light shining through a narrow window’, perhaps, or ‘the auditory equivalent of being gently massaged by thousands of hands at once’?

Alright, that’s enough of that. I’m aware of how difficult it is to interpret writing about music anyway, without it getting all meta. I promise from here on in not to overcomplicate what it is that makes this album great; the texture, the depth, the tone, the sound.

What must it have been like to hear new music in the sixties and seventies? Constant innovation, new sounds and recording techniques being developed all the time, record upon record, all of it sounding nothing like anything before, all of it new. But after this wave of innovation came, to some extent, a plateau. The growth of this palette of sound slowed, steadied. There could be fewer great leaps into the unknown. Come 1991, there was a sense that we'd heard it all before. There's a limit to what you can do to an electromagnetic signal.

But then along comes something like this. Kevin Shields’ guitar doesn’t sound like anything else, ever, over-italicised or not, it’s as simple as that. It has become something of a cliché to say that a guitarist ‘makes his guitar speak’, but with Shields it is more than that. He makes it sigh, breathe, cry. The range of resonance he coaxes from that battered Fender Jaguar is astonishing. It can sound huge and at the same time distant, as in ‘Touched’, where it somehow contrives to replicate the sound of dinosaurs mating. It can sound like diving jets and whirligig fairground sounds all at the same time, as in ‘To Here Knows When’. Most of the time, though, it sounds like a gale, a whirling maelstrom of pure white noise, but all the while concealing at its core a melody heartbreakingly fragile and beautiful. It is a music of contradiction.

You know those days where, despite yourself, you manage to fall into one of those half asleep, half awake states? The ones where you’re not sure when you were awake and when you were dreaming? Next time that happens, take my advice; seize the opportunity. Stick Loveless on the stereo, lie down and roll with it. There is no music more perfectly fitting for the liminal state between reality and dream. As you drift in and out of consciousness that rolling, chiming roar sweeps over you in tangled waves of feedback and scattered fragments of thoughts and memories. At points you surface and everything is clear, at other times there is nothing but the sound. Like The Holy Bible last week, the conflict at the heart of this album is between ugliness and beauty, yet here that tension is played out not in the lyrics, swamped and concealed by as they are by the voice of the guitar, but in that delicate balance of blissful noise, as if the listener had returned to the womb.

Loveless was a famously torturous album to produce, nearly bankrupting Creation, the label that funded it. But that effort is ingrained in every note and every glistening, distorted chime. It is a masterwork, the kind of record that defines an artist’s career. But Kevin Shields clearly wasn’t content with just the one, as we’ll see next week, when I’ll be talking about his work with Primal Scream (or prmlscrm) on XTRMNTR.

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