It’s Bloody good: A smart balance makes Loveless critique worth checking out

(Editor’s Note: Periodically, LEO will run reviews of Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of books that dissect classic and influential albums.)

Reading a “making of” story about one of your favorite albums can be a frightening prospect. What if all the magic is replaced with a bunch of dry-sounding facts, technical problems and reports of who was arguing? Money problems, break-ups — they make great gossip but can wreck the imagined world listeners create for albums.

Thankfully, in his new book on My Bloody Valentine’s classic album Loveless, author Mike McGonigal maintains a smart balance of investigation, a fan’s appreciation and wry critique. McGonigal is the editor of the much-loved indie magazine/fanzine YETI, and his perspective is largely based on punk rock and outsider art music. He engages himself in a mix of gushing praise for Loveless and skeptical self-awareness (including the hilarious caveat, “Really … it’s too easy for this album to turn you into a pretentious twat. Be very careful!”).

The actual album, released on Nov. 4, 1991, is one of the decade’s defining works. It’s considered a masterpiece and was endlessly debated and attacked. McGonigal narrates the sound of Loveless pretty well, and if you’ve heard the album, you might agree that’s a big feat.

He describes the opening song “Only Shallow” as “powered by what sounds like a broken air-raid siren for the hook; it’s like getting hit in the head with a lead pillow,” and another as “the sonic equivalent of one of those later-period Gerhard Richter paintings, from when he was building up gorgeous layers of paint then removing them by sanding them down.”

Loveless combines experimental white noise, samples, beautiful melodies and what seems like an ocean of guitars (and really messed up sort-of whale sounds). People in the ’90s asked, “Where could this have come from?”

There were influences, sure, but MBV sounded like no other band in the world. This created an air of mystery around the group, and the myths grew steadily for 15 years.

Had Loveless really cost a half-million dollars and bankrupted the small English label that signed them? Did they record everything in a giant drug haze? Are there hidden mathematical theorems in the waves of sound? Why can no living soul understand the lyrics?

Almost all of these questions were targeted at Kevin Shields, the primary songwriter and resident visionary of the band. Shields is still a cult hero, guitar innovator and fabled perfectionist, releasing very little music to the public. McGonigal makes sure to let readers know how much the rest of the band was part of the whole story of Loveless, but Shields played almost every instrument and dedicated more than two years to the album.

With an array of current interviews, McGonigal recreates the recording process and gives insight into the emotional difficulties, tests of will and stubbornness that helped push it forward. The success, massive influence and hype of Loveless drove My Bloody Valentine into an even more obsessive follow-up album session that lasted, well, forever.

To date, they’ve released no other records, resolving to keep working on something new and never officially disbanding.

McGonigal has the open mind and musical history to place My Bloody Valentine in a timeline of pop music innovators and sound artists. He gives us a reference list with Brian Eno, Terry Riley, Sonic Youth, Psychic TV and more, but knows where and when to let MBV speak for itself.

McGonigal smartly opens the whole book with a blistering white noise improvisation he witnessed at a My Bloody Valentine show in 1992. Within the ear-shattering feedback and drone/thrash/freak-out literally driving people out of the room, McGonigal describes a melody, first distant, then fully realized, floating above the blasting music.

Later on, he has a chance to ask Shields about the song and discovers that this happened to many people at MBV concerts. Audiences heard ghost-like melodies above the noise on countless nights. However, the band didn’t play anything different. It was one simple part, played for more than 10 minutes. Somehow the audience slipped off into some weird dream and made their own music in their heads, physically submitting to the sound.

The final effect of reading this short but potent biography isn’t added clarity of how the band made Loveless, but more of how the record feels. What a fitting notion for a band that could never be explained.

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