A Rush of Noise and Feeling: Reflections on My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’
The first time I heard My Bloody Valentine, I was a junior in high school. As a pre-teen, I saw the cultural explosion of the grunge era happen before my eyes, albeit through the lens of MTV and 90s pop culture. I was a voracious listener as a kid, desperate to hear more sounds and know more about the makers of those sounds, why they were important, and what was happening in the world around them. As such, by the time I was 17, I had already made my way through a sizable number of the celebrated psych and classic guitar rock albums of the 60s and 70s (The Who, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, etc.) and had begun to set my ears toward the underground rock scene(s) the prefigured grunge in the 80s and flourished beyond its margins throughout the 90s. At this point in my musical journey, college radio stations like WKDU and WPRB had replaced WMMR and Y100 as I explored and learned more about this music that was far removed from my own cultural home base: hip hop.
One night, I fell asleep listening to The Sarah & Laurie Show on WPRB. The show was one of my favorites at the time as it featured the two hosts playing and excitedly talking about a variety of music across genres. Back then, I’d listen to late-night radio shows and fall asleep with a blank cassette tape recording. In the morning, I’d wake up with a fresh tape of sounds to dig into. That night, Sarah and Laurie played one song that would impact me deeply and lead me to a band that has reshaped my taste in music at its core.
The song was “Only Shallow” by My Bloody Valentine, a band that was formed in Dublin, Ireland a decade earlier. The song’s famous snare drum intro led into a gliding, soaring guitar riff that was unlike anything I’d ever heard. Texturally, the song was awash in dynamic waves of distortion and reverb. The lead vocal from guitarist Bilinda Butcher pulled me in further. Butcher’s tone was airy and spacious and her delivery was laconic. The song’s lyrics were unclear to me at the time, but the words appear to be designed to support a feeling of warmth and intimacy more than they exist to convey any conceptual or thematic statement.
“Sleep like a pillow, no one there
Where she won’t care, anywhere
Soft as a pillow, touch her there
Where she won’t dare, somewhere”
“Only Shallow” combined the harshness of some of my favorite guitar bands with an intense femininity that practically left me glowing as I walked the hallways of Northeast High School with the tape on repeat in my Walkman. It was like a rush of noise and feeling. Like most of the music that would come to love throughout my life, My Bloody Valentine hooked me immediately and Loveless – the album that “Only Shallow” opened – would reveal a world of possibilities for me.
Like many of the (big C) “Classic” rock albums that I had pored over as a kid, Loveless came with a reputation amongst music critics and by the heavy mythology surrounding its creation. Stories of the compulsive perfectionism, near-bankruptcy, and depression that marked the recording of Loveless, cloaked the album in a romantic air that colors the way the album is written about, spoken on, and heard to this day. Of course, I didn’t know much about all this when I first bought the album. I did know that I was in love with “Only Shallow” and ready for whatever journey that My Bloody Valentine was going to take me on.
Much has been written about Loveless as a sonic experience, and I don’t think much attention has been given to why it sounds the way that it does. To my ears, Loveless was a perfect marriage of the ambiance and space of 60s psychedelia, the immediacy of punk, the sliding, note-bending of the blues and early rock n’ roll, as well as the noisy proclivities of The Velvet Underground and the American indie bands that followed them. Not only did MBV distill several generations of guitar techniques into a singular playbook of sound, they elevated texture to an equal (or greater?) standing alongside melody, harmony, and rhythm in the hierarchy of what makes a song a song. Growing up making hip hop and sample-based music, this approach was immediately familiar and sensible to me. The process of capturing a snippet of audio from a crackling, warped vinyl record, chopping and filtering in a sampler, and recording it back onto cassette tape would radically alter the textural character of a sound and hip hop understood that the grit from these new sonic colors were key elements of a composition. In many interviews throughout the years, MBV guitarist Kevin Shields has paid homage to the influence of hip hop and sampling on the sound of Loveless.
In a Rolling Stone piece from 2017, Shields takes a look back on the making and subsequent remastering of Loveless. He makes sure to tip his hat to the hip hop groups of the 80s that inspired the group’s sound, particularly, Public Enemy.
“The sound on the first two Public Enemy records were very mid-rangey,” he says. “They weren’t hi-fi hip-hop records. It wasn’t music that was designed for an arena, and I loved the up-frontness of that sound and the lack of attempting to pacify the listener with prettiness.”
Despite Shields’ stated intention to not “pacify the listener with prettiness”, upon hearing Loveless, I immediately found myself enraptured by how gorgeous the album was. The beauty of the songs’ lovelorn melodies and that overarching sheen of colorful, shape-shifting noise burrowed deep into my heart. Loveless carried me through the moodiness of my late teens, and the album acted as a balm that helped make the emotional chaos and uncertainty of my 20s bearable. By the time I had hit my 30s – some 20 years removed from the album’s initial release – the mythology of Loveless had only grown and embedded itself deeper into rock music’s cultural psyche. People would reference the album at parties and in casual music conversations and virtue-signaling rock dudes who were too cool to love anything deeply would dismiss the album as “overrated.”
Gushing retrospectives were written in the press, and I had been creasing the thin spine of Mike McGonigal’s wonderful 33 ⅓ book for years. Despite all of the chatter around the album and a considerable number of listens, my affection for these songs has not changed. Happily, I am no longer a sad, perpetually stoned 20-something but Bilinda Butcher’s dreamy vocal on “Loomer” coupled with the swirling maelstrom of guitar noise around her will still ignite something sweet in my spirit. For years, “When You Sleep” – and Loveless as a whole – was a tool to help me wind down at the end of particularly trying days. After hearing me play it around the house, my partner, Melissa has taken up the song as one of her favorites and now she plays it more than I do, obviously responding to its warm, comforting quality.
In my mind, Loveless climaxes and closes out with “What You Want.” If Loveless were a film, the groovy hip hop-referencing “Soon” always felt like a post-credit scene to me, but “What You Want” has an energy and tone that feels like a fitting end to an emotionally wrought and elevating journey. Jaunty and uptempo when compared to the rest of the songs on the album, the song’s vocals and guitars coalesce into a moving wave of sound that crystallizes that bittersweet feeling that permeates Loveless. Like many MBV songs, the words exist to support the feeling. The song as a total experience is overflowing with nostalgia and innocent romanticism.
“What I do I say
But I can’t get far away
Oh, I go back to
A memory again
What you want
But you know that I’m alive
Then I’ll go back to you
Don’t you know (what I) feel inside”
Once the swooning, doo-wop-like harmonies swoop in and a rushing wave of guitar noise hits you like a fast-rising tide, “What You Want” immerses you fully within its sound. The tingle that this song-and Loveless as a whole gave me during the first thousand or so listens has certainly faded, but it is still there. I will probably never recapture that experience of playing that tape of WPRB and having my ears and heart lovingly blasted by My Bloody Valentine for the first time and that’s fine by me. Today, the intense charge that I used to feel when listening to Loveless has been mostly replaced by the warm glow of familiarity with glimpses of that initial excitement occasionally peeking through from time to time. There’s a reason why Loveless devotees like myself speak of the album in such a loving and over-the-top way: Loveless was made for the romantics who live to get caught up in that rush of noise and feeling.