“Hoping for a real new My Bloody Valentine record is a little like hoping for a new J.D. Salinger story: There may be one some day, but don’t hold your breath.” Douglas Wolk wrote those words in the pages—yes, actual pages—of the CMJ New Music Monthly back in June 1998. He was reviewing Kevin Shields’s remix of Primal Scream’s “If They Move, Kill ‘Em,” one of the scant pieces of MBV ephemera that emerged during the band’s long, mysterious hibernation period. It’s a telling quote because it reveals that even back in 1998, a mere seven years removed from the release of the group’s benchmark album, Loveless, the existence of a new My Bloody Valentine record felt like a cosmic joke, something to dream about but not an object to expect to ever emerge fully formed. Salinger died on January 27, 2010. Exactly three years later, Kevin Shields announced onstage at a show in London that a new My Bloody Valentine album could come out in “two or three days.” Collectively, the internet held its breath.
Well, if you were holding your breath, it’s time to exhale. Like J.D. Salinger popping out of his grave, starting a Tumblr and publishing an E-book, My Bloody Valentine has returned in the most casual, easygoing way possible: On Saturday, February 2, a day that will live in pretending-you-don’t-always-stare-at-your-laptop-on-a-Saturday-night infamy, the band put up an album, plainly titled m b v, for sale on its website, accompanying it with a Facebook post that read, “We are preparing to go live with the new album/website this evening. We will make an announcement as soon as it’s up.” Sidestepping the grueling hype-cycle meets death-march press push that accompanies most albums in the modern era, the band chose to just toss the album on the back porch of the internet. It was a very ’90s gesture, dropping a blockbuster of a record with an unassuming digital shrug that says, “Listen to this…if you care.”
So, I listened. Because I care. The first thing most people probably noticed about m b v is what it’s not. Here’s a brief list: It’s not the full-on jungle music or drum ‘n’ bass experiment album that Shields hinted at occasionally in the ’90s; it’s not a giant sonic leap forward for the band; it’s not a gaping colossus of a comeback like the last two Swans albums; it’s not a soundtrack to that 3-D horror movie; it’s not Loveless. That last part will be especially hard for some fans to come to terms with, but it makes sense: You can only change the game so many times before you discover who you are and decide to stick with it.
Then what does m b v sound like? It sounds deeply considered. Not overly tinkered with or aggressively processed, but very carefully constructed. The elegance of that construction reveals itself on repeated listens, though being aware of certain structural elements of the record can make it more enjoyable. As many others have pointed out, the album has three distinct sections, making it a little shoegaze triptych. The first section kicks off with “She Found Now,” a song that wouldn’t sound out of place if you just let your iTunes transition from Loveless straight into m b v. It’s the sound of a band cautiously picking up its dust-covered tools—those lurching guitar tones, those cooing androgynous vocals, that delicate sense of pacing, those vaguely impressionistic lyrics, that indefinable emotional lilt—and getting back to work. It feels like being slowly lowered back into a cocoon by a team of expert butterflies.
Once Shields and co. have let the embryonic fluids soak in, they go back to doing what they do best: making sprawling, otherworldly guitar pop about timid, Earth-bound emotions. On “Only Tomorrow” that means kicking off with a muffled percussive crash from drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig, before segueing into a fuzzy, scraping guitar part that contrasts with the elegiac vocals. The most striking part of the song is how much Shields lets the guitars stretch, allowing the song to drift into post-rock territory as it builds to its elongated finale; if Loveless was like cotton candy, this is like having a Laffy Taffy stretched so thin you can see through it. The same sense of increased sonic space builds on “Who Sees You,” another track in the classic screeching-guitar mode, but here the elephant-call textures and whispered vocals come to a sudden and abrupt end, signaling the conclusion of the first section.
The album’s more ambient second section begins with “Is This And Yes,” a track built around some cricket-like keyboard tones and Bilinda Butcher’s soft murmurs. While it’s the most mercurial song on an album that’s not exactly notable for its psychological precision and thematic specificity, it’s also an achingly pretty palette cleanser that politely sets the stage for the more experimental material to come later in the album. “If I Am” finds Butcher singing over a warped, heavily distorted guitar part, eventually repeating the song’s (semi-)decipherable lyric, “Even if I am loved,” over and over. That sense of doomed romanticism carries over to “New You,” the album’s dreamy, emotional high point—if any song here is going to show up in another Scarlett Johansson movie, it’s this one—and when it comes to an end, you’re ready to take the plunge into the record’s challenging, invigorating final third.
Sputtering and fidgeting with a new-found rhythmic intensity, “In Another Way” establishes the template for the album’s final, and ultimately most impressive, movement. Instead of pursuing a lush, yearning mood, the band takes on a jittery, paranoid quality that makes listening to the closing songs of m b v a propulsive and visceral experience. Sounding like Portishead traveling through a black hole or weird ’90s R.E.M. gone postal, the album’s final two songs—the snarling flair-up of “Nothing Is” and flaming hovercraft crash that is “Wonder 2″—provide just enough of a head-rush to send you back to track one to start the whole thing over again. You’ll be hard pressed to find another album that’s this much fun to crawl inside.
My Bloody Valentine has always been a project about gratification, both instant and delayed. By spending 22 years to painstakingly assemble this album, the band has engaged in a long-form, slow-motion game of chicken with its own audience. Its influence has grown more pronounced and evolved over the years—read Douglas Wolk’s excellent piece on the band’s legacy for MTVHive to find out how—but its catalog, the essential texts of My Bloody Valentine fandom, always stayed the same. Like Salinger, the band took on a mythical, unknowable quality. That’s not the case anymore. There’s a new chapter now. Start holding your breath for the follow-up.