The real challenge in brit rock, specifically shoegazer music as we've come to call that style of sound painting from the late 80s and early 90s wasn't the second album, but the third. Ride's first album is an established masterpiece; its greatness is public record, so far as I see it. Their second was still great, if less so, because they tried, not without reason to branch out stylistically: be bigger, be louder, be more than they really were. Their third album was their last. Carnival of Light was the band at war with itself. No one much cared to see a band struggling in quite this way. Nor did the members themselves. It was over. Their fourth album came out posthumously. Slowdive got out three albums before realizing their ambitions lay elsewhere, specifically Mojave 3, and eventually to be roped in with Jack Johnson. The Catherine Wheel's third album was where their sound got harsher and they lost some of their early devotees. Chapterhouse's masterful debut gave way to an ugly, confused, and tellingly harsher second album. Then they were done. A third never arrived. My Bloody Valentine's story is familiar to anyone who's ever picked up a copy of spin or magnet. A good first album, a genius second album, then nothing. Twenty years of it. But they didn't break up, like the others. They just stopped. And so the curse was broken, because the world waited for that third album that never came, but seeminly could at any moment. And finally it did.
But now that's over. And here it is. It's not a prank, not a copycat band's imitation, not a bootleg made up of snippets stolen over the years. It's the real thing. It could only be. Kevin Shields is the only guy alive who could have written those chord progressions, as David Bowie will tell you about The Man Who Sold The World. But more to the point, he's the only person with any right playing his guitar like that. That effect's been used in the years since Loveless, that perpetual bending of the bar while strumming, but no one in the world would do it for a whole album. Not unless they were in My Bloody Valentine. The rest of the musical world knows that this is sacred ground, not to be trod upon by pretenders. Many people will probably be more surprised that a legion of albums didn't come out in the wake of Kevin Shields expensive career killing, legendary album that attempted to fill the void, however feebly. But everyone knew that Shields and Co. were the only ones allowed to sound like this.
So what does M B V actually sound like, other than utterly like the band playing it. In short: it's good, but not quite good enough. Isn't Anything was very clearly the band finding its songwriting and production style and sort of hitting it hard. Its minimal, brash and prickly. Not quite industrial, not quite pop. The genre hadn't really arrived, thus they were essentially experimental, even if in the somewhat safe confines of rock. Isn't Anything is the sound of a band very aggressively finding its feet. When they discovered that they could do much more they did and nearly got lost in the process, Loveless was Kevin Sheilds painting a carefully considered masterpiece. It very nearly became his Magnificent Ambersons. But Loveless is a record to study, to fall in love with; you bathe in Loveless. If it leaves you cold, it's going to, but it works not merely as music, but a document of music itself and the possibilities afforded a musician unafraid to try everything. If rock music weren't still the house around Shields, he might be living under a bridge in Dublin, or collaborating with Yoko Ono doing residencies at whatever MOMA's within a stone's throw. It's a boldly anarchic record, finding melody in entire cities of sound. No one else has had the balls to do anything like it.
In the bands evolution, M B V makes perfect sense. They first discovered their sound, then perfected it, and here they take it to a number of different extremes. In other terms: they mixed the paint, they painted a masterpiece, and now they're coloring outside the lines. I don't think anyone expected the band to make Loveless 2; those who did are the kind of people who thought Chinese Democracy was going to outdo Use Your Illusion. Their sound here is perfectly fine, expected, even, but only if they'd released it on time. If M B V is a dissapointment it's because it's only the Carnival of Light of My Bloody Valentine's development and not the record we all wished they'd been perfecting since 1993. The songcraft is most assuredly Shields, but without the sense of discovery, of a dystopian soundscape pouring out of headphones or car speakers, it sounds far too ordinary. Too tame. Loveless doesn't seem real, like it should have been given to us. M B V only makes sense. By the time "new you" arrives, and it's just a song, even a very catchy and pretty one, it feels like a massive comedown. Shields can build worlds so why should he be content building houses? The beats and riffs he chooses to punish in the album's last act are exciting and interesting, but not nuanced enough to warrant this much attention from him. It feels like there ought to be more. More layers, more harmony, more texture. But frankly we didn't have this record for twenty years, so what's a few rough spots.
Which brings me to this: My Bloody Valentine are impervious to criticism. I'm as interested in music criticism as I am in music itself these days (or more, I'm as infuriated and beguiled by modern music criticism as I am entertained or captivated by most new albums) and what I'm anticipating now is the reaction. What will this mean to the band that no longer means anything tangible. They're legends now. Everyone in the world is preparing a review for this record, probably as I write this one. You'll hear people talking, they'll post it on facebook or twitter or tumblr. And that's just the point: Everyone's going to think they've discovered its meaning, or they'll feign indifference, or they'll simply say it's good or bad. But none of that will matter. A bad review won't diminish concert attendance because people want to say they were there. They saw My Bloody Valentine in concert. It's a right of passage. I would have paid Coachella prices to see Rage Against The Machine by themselves back in 2007; that LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Interpol, Rufus Wainwright and The Good, The Bad & The Queen were also playing was (admittedly insane, untouchable, unforgettable, some of the best concerts I've ever seen) silver lining next to that badge of honor. I forsee the album getting B+'s and A-'s by most reasonable, read music publications and I also know it won't make an iota of fucking difference. I want to see what this album, which is really more of an event, like a Tarantino film or a Pynchon novel. It will be consumed. So what I want to know was: how does a reputation like that affect the making of an album like this.
Blur keep trying and failing to make new music, I think largely in part because they don't think see the point in adding to their stellar back catalog. How do you sound like yourself when you've all changed so much? My Bloody Valentine haven't exactly been busy since Loveless, so that begs the question: how organic was M B V? Was this the album that they felt they had to make? Or was this just what happened when they picked up their guitars again? Had Shields been saving all these ideas in a diary somewhere, waiting for the day he got his band in the same room again? It seems doubtful, doesn't it? But then, who's to say? We've been sitting around building them up every new week that an album hasn't come out. All they had to do was release an album, any album and it would become part of their legend. It had an entry on their wikipedia page before anyone had any real proof that the album existed. Myth moves at the speed of thought today. But were they aware of that? My Bloody Valentine were in the museum of modern art in our collective unconscious for so long that it might be too late to change the plaque beneath them reading "indefinite hiatus. Third album forthcoming but don't hold your fucking breath." Will this album or anything they ever do, bring them to life again? Do they even want it to? Can't give bad notices to something that, to shamelessly quote the band themselves, isn't anything at all. You can't converse with legends. To me, it still feels like they're more an idea or a memory than a band again. I suspect I'll always somewhere still be used to the idea that they're gone and beyond reproach or comment. They're still a myth. Nevermind that they're four people who just made an album. They've ensured their legacy, but they'll always be encased in amber because of it, even if they deafen people after today. And I suspect they'll always be someone willing to go deaf for My Bloody Valentine.