So here they are. As great as it is to see Kevin Shields doing interviews again to promote these long-awaited releases, and as much as he may allude to record company machinations, you get the feeling he’s not overly bothered about the myths and legends that have built up around him over the years. The tales of mental breakdown, weed-fuelled inertia and barbed-wire-reinforced hermitry; or indeed the rumour that it was liner notes that were causing the inexorable delay of the Loveless/Isn’t Anything remasters: it all fed into the enigmatic reputation of a band who created one of the most extraordinary and influential albums in rock history before disappearing from public view; evidently deciding – after brief flirtations with speed-metal and jungle – that they couldn’t create an adequate follow-up.
In a 1988 essay, Simon Reynolds spoke of how Dinosaur Jr. (on albums such as You’re Living All Over Me and Bug) were “dissolving rock’s vertebrae, as the riff, powerchord and bassline are almost lost in a blizzard of violently serrated haze…”. As he later concluded, My Bloody Valentine would take this “logic of blissed amorphousness to the next level”, taking in influence from Psychocandy and Daydream Nation along the way. Over a run of records that began with 1988’s You Made Me Realise EP and culminated in their 1991 masterpiece Loveless, the visionary group developed an often-imitated but never-equalled sound: one that combined waves of disorientating textures with ethereal, unintelligible vocals, while simultaneously redefining the possibilities of the guitar as an instrument.
Probably the most eagerly anticipated disc of these three is EPs 1988-1991, a compilation of the four EPs the band released in that time period as well as some enticing rarities, three of which are unreleased. Its jumping-off point is the You Made Me Realise EP, which was actually the band’s sixth (if ‘mini-LP’ Ecstasy is included.) On their earlier material MBV had struggled to forge an identity, their sound veering from schlocky (and shoddy) Birthday Party knock-offs to fey, jangly indie-pop via Mary Chain-esque fuzz. YMMR was a massive step-up: combining the pulverising title track (complete with its vacuum-like anti-solo) with the irresistible power-pop rush of ‘Thorn’ and the grinding eroticism of ‘Slow’, the sound may have been relatively straightforward (compared to what was still to come) but the band’s distinctive aesthetic and ear-bleeding sonic potency was taking shape.
The EPs that preceded Loveless were similarly revelatory: on Glider, the title track’s undulating waves of feedback are both abrasive and hypnotic, while Tremolo interspersed gorgeous ambient passages with the clamorous ‘Honey Power’ and the swooning ‘Swallow’. Of the unreleased tracks, ‘Angel’ (aka ‘Bilinda’s Song’) is the standout, its breezily melodic vocals and driving rhythmic structure making it a close cousin to YMMR’s ‘Drive It All Over Me’. ‘Good For You’ and ‘How Do You Do It’ date from the same circa-Isn’t Anything period, but both are fairly workmanlike fuzz-drenched affairs. Elsewhere, the excellent ‘Instrumental No. 2’ sounds like nothing else in their catalogue – sampling the beat from Public Enemy’s ‘Security of the First World’ (Shields beat Madonna to the punch on that one) and overlaying it with ghostly, wordless quasi-chanting – while ‘Sugar’ is a drowsily sweet, raggedly swaying number.
Album-wise, you’d have thought Isn’t Anything would stand to benefit most from a remaster: the original always seemed a bit blunted by jarring production; its combination of eerie, contorted guitar tones and more frenetic, muscular fare bearing traces of friction. However, the production retains much of its rough feel. The main difference, as Shields has intimated in interviews, is that it’s considerably louder while retaining its dynamic range – the driving ‘(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream’, for example, has a sharper punch to it, while Colm Ó Cíosóig’s frenetic drum fills (a crucial element) sound slightly crisper and cleaner. It’s nothing radical and it certainly doesn’t change the feel of the album, but it’s still an understandable and worthwhile move, as anyone familiar with iPod volume caps will testify.
A massively influential album in its own right (just ask Slowdive, Ride, et al), Isn’t Anything is more propulsive and song-based than its follow-up – and more recognisably the work of actual humans. On the other hand, more formless tracks like ‘No More Sorry’ and ‘All I Need’ are the feverish nightmare to Loveless’ vivid waking-dream, while lyrical references to violence and suicide increase the sense of disquiet. The best tracks are in the second half: it’s no wild exaggeration to say that ‘You Never Should’ sounds like a jet taking off, or that its middle section sounds like a jet disintegrating; ‘Sueisfine’ is so frantic that it’s on the brink of derailing, while ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’ is one of the band’s more underappreciated numbers (the version they did for John Peel is essential).
There are two remasters provided for Loveless, the second being a remaster from the original ½ inch analogue tapes. (NB as explained by this blog-post, the CDs are labelled the wrong way around, while there’s a very noticeable glitch on the newer version’s ‘What You Want’). While the claims made for this analogue version include increased separation and a wider stereo field, the differences are fairly minimal to these ears. (As above, on both discs the volume is considerably louder.)
In any case, you can’t improve perfection. Loveless immerses the listener in waves of sampled feedback and subtly shifting textures; Shields’ ‘glide guitar’ technique creating a disorientating, hazy effect as the tracks seem to shift in and out of focus, yet remain continually mesmeric. The vocals become another (vital) instrument in the mix, their former explicit imagery (‘Sunny Sundae Smile’ wasn’t about ice cream) replaced by androgynous, ambiguous melodies and post-orgasmic cooing. Discordant swarms and weightless ambient tones mix seamlessly, while even the heaviest tracks (‘Only Shallow’, ‘When You Sleep’) sound like they’re blanketed.
It was a whole new language, and over 20 years later it still sounds like one. The haunting, droning minimalism of ‘Sometimes’. That magical middle eight on ‘I Only Said’. The blissful glide of ‘Blown A Wish’, or ‘What You Want’’s sublime progression…and that’s not even to mention ‘Soon’, the closing track and single (also included on the Glider EP) that Brian Eno described as setting “a new standard for pop”. This album changed the way I thought about music at an impressionable young age, and remarkably I still get shivers now listening to the same songs that I’ve heard countless times down the years.
Now, about that new material…