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At 25, My Bloody Valentine's divisive masterpiece 'Loveless' is the 'Sopranos' finale of albums

My Bloody Valentine [Photo: Big Mouth Publicity]

My Bloody Valentine [Photo: Big Mouth Publicity]

Twenty-five years ago last week, My Bloody Valentine released Loveless, an album that has been alternately hailed as genius, possibly the best album ever made, unlistenable garbage, and possibly the worst album ever made -- and that's just in the course of a conversation between friends at happy hour.

It’s a divisive masterpiece, with many people preferring the bands it inspired, rather than the album itself. Others still prefer to avoid shoegaze altogether, finding it too dense and noisy to be at all enjoyable.

I was given a cassette copy of Loveless a few months after its release by a friend’s way cooler, kind of goth-y older sister, on whom I had a hopeless crush. She wore Doc Martens with her private school uniform, had a haircut that made her look like Toni Halliday from Curve, and knew about all the cool bands coming out of England with that loud, flange-filled guitar sound: MBV, Ride, Slowdive, Jesus & Mary Chain, etc.

She loved My Bloody Valentine and correctly thought I might, too.

“What are you listening to right now?” she asked one day as we were leaving to go skateboard around the neighborhood. “I don’t know, the new Metallica?” I sheepishly offered, referring to the Black Album, which I didn’t actually like, but all my friends did, so I pretended to for a little while -- actually, likely right up until this conversation took place.

“You don’t want to listen to that,” she replied as she ran upstairs to retrieve a dubbed copy of Loveless. “Here, I know you like the Cure, you’ll love this.”

I put it in my pocket, and when I listened to it a few hours later, my life had changed a little bit. Just like it had when I got the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill when I was 10, when I first heard Metallica's …And Justice for All in junior high, and when I got Nirvana's Nevermind not six months prior to this. Loveless quickly and permanently shaped how I would critique all other music moving forward. It was, and still is, a measuring stick.

If you’re reading this, I'll assume you already know most (or at least some) of the lore attached to Loveles, so I won’t rehash it all. But some of it bears repeating just for the sheer insanity of it all. Guitarist and unquestionable leader of the band, Kevin Shields, had a clear vision of what he wanted for the album. Though he would not, at any time during the two years it took to record, make clear to anyone what that vision was.

Some songs have 30 or more guitar layers. The guitars, at many points, seem to swirl and storm; it’s entirely possible the term “swirling guitars” was invented by a critic precisely for this album. The vocals seemed important at one point, certainly, but they’re buried so low in the mix that they’re simply another layer of noise on many tracks.

On paper, all of these elements make it sound like an appalling mess. And make no mistake, nearly everyone but Shields, and most notably their record label’s head, Alan McGee (who would later sign Oasis, and whose label, Creation, was eventually bankrupted, mostly by this album’s recording process), considered it a disaster. Or, at the very least, approaching one. 

But Loveless somehow came out on the other side as a curiosity that eventually inspired its loyal fans to start bands. It grew into a classic and has repeatedly (and correctly) appeared near the top of lists ranking the best albums from the 1990s.

Despite the mountains of praise that have been heaped upon it, Loveless, for all of its pomp and flourishes, is a fairly straightforward album -- there is a bit of trickery that lies inside, however. There will be no track-by-track dissection here. Aside from such things becoming a masturbatory exercise in Writing 101, it also becomes unfathomably boring to read someone prattle on about each track on a record, no matter how great it is.

The trick is that Loveless has to be consumed whole to fully understand its power. The two singles, “When You Sleep” and “Only Shallow,” are fun and loud by themselves, with the former nearly sounding like a pop song. But the album is arranged almost as passages of the same piece of music, astonishing considering parts of particular songs were recorded months apart and, in some cases, in different studios (the band used upwards of 19 studios during the recording).

It’s almost as if Shields & Co. wanted to create the ultimate prog-rock record and accidentally drew the blueprints for a completely new genre of music instead. I’m not fully convinced this isn’t the case, to be quite honest. And much of that is where the beauty of the album and the love for it lies: the unanswered questions that will never have solid answers.

If you look at it that way, Loveless becomes The Sopranos series finale of albums: Whatever you think it means, you’re right. Except instead of quiet, black nothingness, there are loud, feedback-enveloped guitars and ethereal vocals to wade through while sorting your thoughts. It means something concrete to My Bloody Valentine to be certain, but whatever it means to you is just as valid.

Obviously, I didn’t know this the day my friend’s sister handed me that clear Memorex tape of Loveless. It was simply an album full of beautiful, almost lurid, controlled noise that I wanted to hear more of as soon as possible, and, as it turns out, a quarter-century later. 

I’m probably more emotionally attached to several other albums, but no other album makes me feel even vaguely like Loveless does even though I can’t -- even 25 years later -- accurately describe what those feelings are.