With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into My Bloody Valentine's debut album Isn't Anything on its 30th anniversary.
On My Bloody Valentine’s first record, the band already sounds weary and tired. They have the gravitas and aches in their voices of pioneers who’ve seen it all, survived the exploits of experimentation, and searching for peace on sonic roads less traveled. Of course, that’s not exactly what happened but there are some half-truths in there.
Isn’t Anything, which turns 30 years old today, is not really the starting point of My Bloody Valentine. The band had an entire past life before the record with former lead vocalist Dave Conway, recording an array of jangly EPs, mini-albums, and singles. Listening to works like Ecstasy and This Is Your Bloody Valentine feel like finding your parents old yearbooks sporting haircuts you’d never imagined they could pull off. In those early years, the band’s sound was much more indebted to the post-punk of The Smiths and Joy Division than the eardrum-splitting distortion that would become their calling card. It’s easy to imagine an alternate timeline where MBV keeps on this path, amassing a steady following and having an endearing legacy maintained on rarity compilations for years to come. But that wasn’t MBV’s fate. As Conway exited, vocalist and guitarist Belinda Butcher joined the group and everything changed.
On the band’s first release with Butcher, the fiery You Made Me Realize EP, those bright, twinkling guitars are soon traded in for the low hums of distorted loops and washed out reverb. The band opts to sound mangled instead of pristine right at the beginning with the riotous title track. Shields takes on more vocal duties as well, singing often just above a whisper. It’s hard to make out he and Butcher’s voices in the mix, overpowered by the beastly instrumentation growing around them. It’s something My Bloody Valentine fans will have to start getting used to and a tactic that’ll be replicated repeatedly by new acts all the way through 2018 (and more than likely, long after that).
If MBV sounds tired on Isn’t Anything, it’s for good reason. By their own account, they barely slept more than a couple hours a night while cutting takes in a Wales studio. The song title “[When You Wake] You’re Still In A Dream” feels more like a descriptor than just poetry. Listening to the record, the images readily appear. You can picture the four band members slumped over their instruments, bobbing their heads in desperation to keep their eyes open while the volume from their speakers rings relentlessly in their ears. The dichotomy of loudness and drowsiness is practically the crux of MBV – two seemingly opposing ideas that blend into overwhelmingly beautiful, cacophonous noise. That lackadaisical posture and fixating on their pedals would lead British journalists to start to refer to the sound as “shoegazing.”
Shoegaze may simultaneously be one of the best and worst genre descriptors in modern music history. The visual it puts in your head couldn’t be more spot on, but the name does feel like it comes as a slight in the same vein as calling a band “emo.” It’s so literal and obtuse that it may undermine or distract from the artistry on display. Regardless, MBV was beginning to define the entire concept – though they were just one piece of the whole alongside bands like Slowdive, Ride, and Cocteau Twins. But before the band would go full guitar maximalist on their sophomore record Loveless, the band showcases some of their most delicate prowesses with Isn’t Anything. There’s plenty of tinnitus-inducing jams on here like the rapturous squall of “Feed Me With Your Kiss” and “Nothing Much to Lose,” all of which are only enhanced by their proximity to dreamier wanderings of the shivering “No More Sorry” and the romantic, blurry pulse of “All I Need.” “Lose My Breath” feels like it could fit nicely on Mount Eerie’s Clear Moon, which would come out over two decades later. Butcher’s voice on the song feels faint and ghostly – an apparition floating throughout the soundboard and blown out amplifiers.
“Before I can speak, my world is wishing me asleep,” Butcher sings. It might as well be a mantra for the record. The album exists in the space between subconscious and conscious, the dream world and the physical realm. Sleep is not always restful. Our bodies may toss and turn, our brains reeling with the stresses and worries of the day to create surrealistic allegories for our daily lives. Isn’t Anything feels like a dream. The type of dream where you wake up unsure if what you just saw was real or imagined. Disorienting and arresting, familiar and fading. My Bloody Valentine reimagined themselves and found more power in opening up their sonic spectrums to both their quiet and blaring tendencies. Sure, it set the stage for the monolithic Loveless, but its own legacy is far more than that. Just like how a dream can be hard to hold in your memory, it still finds a way to linger with you and maybe come back again and again. Isn’t Anything can haunt you or give you peace. In the band’s physical weariness and embracement of change, they found an astounding mix of daydreams and nightmares that are still keeping us up late 30 years later.
As we celebrate the life of Elliott Smith, who left the world fifteen years ago, Martin Douglas shares a personal story of bonding over his final released collection of songs.
With Rewind, KEXP digs out beloved albums, giving them another look on the anniversary of its release. In this installment, KEXP writer Dusty Henry delves into Nirvana’s final studio album In Utero for its 25th anniversary.