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No Love Lost: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless Turns 25

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No Love Lost: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless Turns 25

The autumn of 1991 saw the release of countless seminal albums of various genres from the period’s most influential acts. We’ve handpicked several notable releases—some widely celebrated, some largely underappreciated—to reevaluate on the eves of their 25th anniversaries.

At this point, to add even another sentence of fawning, if well-deserved, praise for My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless seems pointlessly tautological. Yes, a quarter century after an album’s release is theoretically a prime moment to reflect on its legacy and influence. But that legacy was secured nearly as soon as Kevin Shields’s symphony of noise was released, at which point its revolutionary layers of guitar effects immediately began inspiring a generation of music nerds and gear geeks to start their own bands. After all, the album, along with My Bloody Valentine’s debut, Isn’t Anything, almost singlehandedly spurred the formation of an entirely new genre in shoegaze.

There’s almost nothing new left to say about how the album sounds, or the infamously labored two-year, multi-studio process that Shields undertook—with scant help from his bandmates—to complete it, other than to call it one of the most emotionally evocative soundscapes ever put to tape. There is, however, one aspect of Loveless that often gets the short shrift in favor of the sonic qualities of its thick wall of wobbly guitars and dreamlike atmosphere: the songs themselves.

In his review of the album at the time of its release, Spin’s Jim Greer deemed the songwriting “standard-ish and dull” and admitted that, while he liked Loveless, it was “not on the basis of the singing or the songs.” Years later, noted web critic George Starostin echoed this line of criticism, common among those who’ve resisted bowing at the alter of My Bloody Valentine over the years: “The melodies of the songs are either not too great, or their greatness is completely eclipsed by the atmospheric production,” which, he writes, “hinder[s] us from seeing the virtues of the individual tunes.” Yes, it’s inarguable that Shields broke new ground with the way he recorded and mixed his guitar parts, but hey, so did Tom Scholz, and Shields never wrote a song nearly as universally beloved as “More Than a Feeling.”

If Loveless was nothing but a batch of forgettable melodies masked by a cloak of distortion, it’s possible that My Bloody Valentine wouldn’t be remembered with any more reverence than Boston these days. If anything, the fact that the album is sometimes described this way is a testament to how monolithic and transporting the overall sonic vibe is, to the point that the songs’ melodic cores become secondary to either how the guitars sound or the feelings the album evokes. But just because those melodic virtues aren’t immediately obvious doesn’t mean they’re not compelling upon examination.

To illustrate this point, one can use the acoustic guitar test to determine if a song sounds good when it’s performed without the avalanche of studio effects. Perhaps surprisingly, that’s exactly how Shields originally composed the songs on Loveless, according to a 2003 interview, and we can get a glimpse into how that might have sounded thanks to Kenny Feinstein of the Oregon-based bluegrass band Water Tower, who released an acoustic-based cover of the entire album in 2013.

Feinstein didn’t completely eschew Loveless’s atmospherics, throwing in some scraping string drones here and ethereal backing vocals there, but they feel more like tributes to the album’s avant-garde ethos than elements that were included only because the songs couldn’t be played convincingly without them. That much is clear from how well the likes of “Only Shallow” translates when delivered via gentle fingerpicking and twanging bottleneck guitar. Dug out from beneath Shields’s guitar army, the effortlessly breezy hooks of “When You Sleep” and “I Only Said” come to the fore, while “To Here Knows When” emerges as least memorable song on Loveless, not because it’s the track with the most guitar noise and the most buried vocal melody, but because that erstwhile buried melody wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.

Other songs, like “Sometimes,” reveal disarmingly romantic melodic shadings that were virtually undetectable on the original album. While Feinstein’s runtish singing may not capture the trancelike essence of the melodies the way Shields and Bilinda Butcher’s silky vocals do, he makes it obvious that the songs on Loveless have nearly as many layers to unpack as the production does. (The famously indecipherable lyrics, on the other hand, remain entirely beside the point.)

If one were to approach Loveless with this level of recognition, then infectious hooks suddenly start to pop up everywhere. The stomping riff and screaming lead guitar that kick off the album’s opening track, “Only Shallow,” and recur between the song’s verses, acting as pseudo-choruses, cut urgently through the thick fog created by Shields’s guitar effects. That’s not even taking into account how beautifully those hard, driving riffs contrast with the pensive, soothing vocal melody, further emphasized by Butcher’s half-asleep singing style. Put simply, “Only Shallow” succeeds because it’s an excellent piece of songwriting, not just because it sounds cool.

This principle applies throughout the rest of Loveless. That high-pitched, whining guitar undulation that drives “I Only Said” is probably the album’s most obvious earworm. That’s partially because of how intriguingly odd it sounds—all the more remarkable considering the fact that Shields achieved that squeaky sound without the aid of pedals, and mostly just by messing around with the EQ. But even without the effects, it’s maddeningly catchy, almost hypnotic, given how many times it’s repeated throughout the song.

These and other melodic elements—the beachy vocal melody of “When You Sleep,” the playful wordless vocals that open “Blown a Wish”—may not be what made Loveless so influential. Indeed, its legacy will and should always be defined primarily by Shields’s enormously innovative accomplishments in capturing and manipulating his electric guitar performances in the studio. But those accomplishments would have little practical value if the songs themselves didn’t make the album so inescapably listenable.