Come back again
To here knows when…
In his analysis of the great artistic movements, literary critic Anatoly Liberman writes: ‘Romanticism in its philosophical aspect is a victory of beauty and grandeur over ugliness and filth. It is a longing for the ideal and a superhuman attempt to find it’ .
From this perspective, it is perhaps surprising to judge My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless as a musical work about the romantic ideal. Released in 1991 at the critical and commercial peak of the shoegaze scene, Loveless owes its uniqueness to the far-reaching vision of frontman and eccentric genius Kevin Shields. Aside from pioneering techniques such as glide guitar or expanding rock’s sonic palette through the extensive use of alternate tunings and feedback, on Loveless, Shields perfected what he began with Isn’t Anything in 1988: the articulation of a new concept of love that discards notions like conventional gender roles, simple romantic attachment, happiness, or heartbreak. His is a psychoanalytic interpretation of love as pure desire and as burgeoning, occasionally frightening, sexuality. Between its incorporation of noise as a source of aesthetic pleasure in the style of Sonic Youth and the subtle display of human frailty borrowed from the dream pop of Cocteau Twins, the record is an archetype of the postmodern collage: songs flow into one another, drowned in distorted guitar riffs, seemingly having no beginning and no end; the lyrical voice, straddling the masculinity-femininity border, tries to reach out for something which is only hinted at, but never grasped. Referring to the album’s closing track, ‘Soon’, ambient musician Brian Eno remarked with admiration: ‘It set a new standard for pop. It’s the vaguest music ever to have been a hit’ .
Without falling into the predictable pattern of weaving straightforward stories about a boy and a girl, the songwriting presents disembodied, quasi-androgynous subjects that would rather fantasize about a distant, secret lover than search for fulfilment in reality. In ‘Blown a Wish’, mystique and illusion have indisputable appeal, as Shields’ fellow guitarist and one-time partner Bilinda Butcher whispers: ‘Midnight wish/Blow me a kiss/I’ll blow one to you/Make like this/Try to pretend it’s true’. In some cases, the reality/fantasy separation appears as a blur; on ‘When You Sleep’, Shields and Butcher sing in a barely comprehensible manner: ‘When I look at you/Oh, I don’t know what’s real’. As the buried vocals and cryptic lyrics turn into layers of a neo-psychedelic soundscape, Loveless begins to address our innermost cravings in ambiguous ways, and it is here that the connection with psychoanalysis is made clear. By way of Lacanian theory, the person worthy of our attention perpetually remains outside of our reach; yet paradoxically, the impossibility of possessing the loved one fuels the sexual fascination to new heights – desire becomes a purpose in itself. Driven by an oceanic three-chord progression, the opener ‘Only Shallow’ is a perfect example of this approach; at first, Butcher playfully encourages the listener to touch some unnamed female subject ‘there’ (never specifying where ‘there’ might actually be), later confronting us with emptiness, futility, and loneliness (‘Look/In the mirror/She’s not there’) before the aurally blissful instrumental coda finally announces the triumph of the mirage.
The power and visceral impact of the music are found not in the climax of feeling complete by achieving romantic goals, but in the phantasm of the Other, in the self-sustaining cycle of lust, imagination, and obsession. This means that any previous understanding of the ideal is shattered, as there is no place for classical beauty and grandeur in Shields’ world, just like there is no ugliness or filth. Loveless deconstructs the romanticism of old and reconstructs it into a dreamlike dimension beyond time and space where passion and sensuality reign supreme; where direct sensory experiences like seeing, hearing and touching are suspended in the realm of fantasy; where noble and selfless love gives way to infatuation or even narcissism; where the greatest transgressions are indifference and cold rationality. For such a dynamic album, though, the lost souls of Shields’ songs are exceptionally static, caught in a trance or in a state of endless waiting, as if they could drift through life while things are happening around them. On ‘Sometimes’, for instance, Shields’ vocals barely break through the lush arrangements, inviting the mysterious object of his adoration to connect with him, but being aware of the inevitable failure in establishing meaningful contact: ‘Close my eyes/Feel me now/I don’t know, maybe you could not hurt me now/Here alone, when I feel down too/Over there, when I await true love for you’.
Loveless is a masterpiece of affective catharsis, a slice of self-indulgent experimental music which pushes the limits of implicit eroticism without ever slipping into vulgarity. It conveys joy, ecstasy, and liberation through what is hidden and what is repressed in the unconscious mind, transcending the confines of aesthetic tradition and asserting itself as a radical artistic statement. If the ‘superhuman attempt’ of nineteenth century romanticism requires exceptional individuals, then My Bloody Valentine argue for the reverse: it is within anyone’s reach to create beauty by appealing to two very basic elements of human nature – imagination and sexual drive. In retrospect, we have to wonder why a record characterized by intimacy and sensibility was called Loveless in the first place. One explanation is that it is a description of the emotional distance between Shields and Butcher during the recording sessions, when their stormy relationship was falling apart; another alludes to the lack of resolution and reciprocity in the narratives, as the protagonists give but do not receive; fantasize, but are not fantasized about, therefore remaining ‘loveless’.
Whichever answer seems more appropriate, one thing is certain: the sonic and conceptual innovations of Loveless must be heard to be believed, as words can only go so far in explaining what it’s all about. After an initial shock, it gently draws you in and refuses to let go. Despite the loud guitars and persistent use of reverb, the album is frequently evocative, ethereal, immersive and warm, due in no small part to Shields’ strong sense of melody and the hypnotic harmonies. It’s an excellent introduction to the discography of one of the most unique bands in the history of rock, and one of the few great records of the genre whose intricacies truly reveal something new with every listen. Considering its thematic richness and its emphasis on ambiguity, it demands patience and open-mindedness in order to be fully appreciated; but what it offers in return is worth the price of admission: an insightful and profoundly different way of looking at love.
- Only Shallow
- To Here Knows When
- When You Sleep
- I Only Said
- Come In Alone
- Blown a Wish
- What You Want
 Anatoly Liberman (ed.), Mikhail Lermontov: Major Poetical Works, p. 20.
 http://www.tohereknowswhen.org/, accessed 5 March 2017.
Text by Vlad Nicu
Picture research by Juliey Pham; featured image taken from genius.com.