My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)

LovelessIt was early 1992, during my first year of university.

After spending my teens buying music on cassette (for a succession of cheap and nasty portable stereos) and on vinyl (to play on my father’s record player when he wasn’t home) I’d finally bought my first proper stereo, with a CD player. With the course costs component of my student loan.

And, so, I then set about buying CDs. And, still living at home, what better way was there to spend the drip-fed living allowance part of the loan apart from on beer at Victoria University’s Hunter Lounge (no ID asked for, wink wink), and bright, shiny new CDs at record stores both in Wellington, and back in my home suburb of Upper Hutt?

I know exactly the first CD I bought. Straitjacket Fits, Melt, replacing a much-loved tape. I still play that very CD to this day.

And many other good CDs were to follow. In the record store in Upper Hutt’s Main Street was this guy, just a tad older than me, who became a bit of a pusher. He had cool hair. He dressed unusually (especially for Upper Hutt). He played in some weird little bands round the place. And he carefully curated by the counter a stand of “Alternative” music; a mix of Flying Nun and stuff from overseas. Damian Christie’s gone on to bigger and brighter things since then, but for a while there he was my musical pusher, eagerly recommending things to pick out for me to try.

I’m in the habit of buying before trying, based on reputation, hype and, more often than not, the good word of someone whose taste I trust. I do that with beer, and I do that with music.  This attitude has kept me open-minded about both, and rarely disappoints.  I like finding the new and unusual.

Damien had tried to warn me, though, that My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless might be a bit unusual. Challenging. But I didn’t really listen to that, hearing instead his excitement about the album. So I bought it, took it home and… wondered if my CD player was broken.

Yes, I know now that while tapes may warp, stretch and sound fucked up CD’s shouldn’t – but, for a while there, I thought something was wrong with my newish CD player. I took the CD out, cleaned it, checked the alignment of the laser and mount within the player, tried again. Nope, still the same. Guitars that phased in and out, rhythms that lurched in and out of time.

But, I let the disc played on, and within a few tracks I realised that this wasn’t a faulty CD or player, this fucked up, swooning, stuttering and lurching noise was entirely intentional. Entirely designed. And entirely enthralling.

And, by the time the album came to a close with the massive, sweeping dance-beat epic ‘Soon’ I was in love. And, like Melt, I’ve still got that very CD, and still listen to Loveless often.

And it still holds up, so so well. Rightly talked about as an alternative rock classic, by one of the most iconic, idiosyncratic bands of the early 90s.

For a long time I didn’t realise that what I was hearing was, mostly, just guitar, bass, drums and vocals. I was certain that this unusual sound must be the result of some electronic gadgetry, sampling, looping and the like. But, over time, I realised that these songs are, for the most part, built from one electric guitar played hugely loud. Loud, with layers of distortion, unusual manipulation between the left and right hands and near constant use of the instrument’s tremolo arm to create walls of sound that sweep up and down. The noise booming hugely low while covering the mid-range with a solid pummelling of clashing frequencies, as the rhythm hand does all sorts of repetitive, fascinating little things.

And further below, there’s an effect-laden, near subsonic bass, holding down even lower frequencies. And the drums, often buried low in the mix, struck various baggy dance rhythms, while the vocals were dreamy, soft, near-unheard.

Layers and layers of sound, an album all about the rhythm and fullness of sound. An album that only reveals itself when listened to loudly, so loud that the room vibrates and shakes and moves with the noise. And, when played loud, it becomes clear how much this is a guitarist’s album.

No, it isn’t about flashy solos, but about finding an interesting rhythm, developing a particular sound and feel for a track, and just hammering it down until you become one with it. Hands, head, and feet. All moving together with the instrument, creating beauty and peace from the swirling musical chaos.

And it’s a great air-guitar album; songs like ‘When You Sleep’ and ‘I Only Said’ drive me to move my body with the rhythms, and inevitably, the dancing will soon centre around becoming one with the rhythm and movement of the spectacular rhythmic guitar of Kevin Shields that anchors the sound.

Loveless is very danceable; in the frequent moments it’s not delving into the deep and dark. And very head clearing. The barely audible words draw the ear in, and you strain to pick up the beat of the drums, and as you do Loveless trips its trap, capturing the listener. Suddenly your head is full with these twisting, hypnotic guitar rhythms, and your body is moving despite itself.

Even in the slow, nearly sub-sonic ‘Sometimes’ I find myself swaying, trapped, the crisp flick of the guitar pick across the strings an otherwise inaudible acoustic guitar providing an inescapable rhythm.

Then Loveless comes to an end with ‘Soon’. A timeless classic – not just because it will last the ages. But because with the repetition and rhythm, the dance beat and hypnotic vocals, time comes to a stop until, seven minutes in the real world later you emerge; pressing play on the stereo again.

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