From one point of view, the announcement and subsequent release of MBV, the new album from My Bloody Valentine, came with striking suddenness. After several months of predictions, the announcement appeared on the band’s Facebook page on Saturday; the album itself became available for digital purchase with the relaunch of their official site first thing Sunday morning, with vinyl and CD versions soon to follow.
From another point of view, the wait could hardly have been longer. MBV is an album that fans of the band have been anticipating since 1991. That’s the year the band released its predecessor, the wildly influential Loveless. Shortly thereafter, they switched labels and embarked on a long fallow period, dotted with occasional one-offs—covers mostly—and, after six years without a follow-up album, the band’s dissolution.
Even that failed to kill rumors: frontman Kevin Shields had turned into J. D. Salinger, recording then shelving multiple albums; he had submitted 60 hours worth of new material to their aggrieved label, Island Records; their next album would have a heavy jungle influence—no, wait: metal. Other band members moved on to new projects while Shields shopped around for collaborators and contributed to the soundtrack to Sophia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, but rumors of an impending album persisted. Most had long since written it off as the musical equivalent of vaporware—a project so long-delayed that there was little to no hope that it would ever materialize. Even the reunion of the band in 2007 felt like false hope.
Nearly 22 years was long enough an interval for the music scene to come back around to the My Bloody Valentine’s sound, having graduated from shoegaze sometime during the late grunge era and come back to its mercurial time signatures and effects-heavy guitars with the dream pop revival of the last five years. It was, apparently, time enough for My Bloody Valentine to come back to itself.
MBV is a fine album, but don’t go in looking for punctuated equilibrium. A few tracks take more novel turns—”nothing is,” for example, or album closer “wonder 2.” Yet despite the decades Shields spent looking for the next evolutionary leap in the band’s sound, most of the album feels like it could have been written quick on the heels of Loveless.
Perhaps as a matter of biographical and cultural circumstance, it couldn’t have been. Fans—or the band, at least—expected a more dramatic development, and anyway, the music scene was changing. Loveless, you will recall, landed the same year as Nevermind. Culturally speaking, time would have to pass before another My Bloody Valentine album could feel as current. With its warbling drones and the alien howls of its guitars,Loveless came as a shock to many musical sensibilities, but by their very nature shocks are hard to replicate. We needed a few decades to adjust, to want something that would have been disappointing at the time: a reprise.
The timing is a bit suspicious, you must admit. The new album comes during a burgeoning 90s revival, with elements of the era cropping up in music, design and fashion. That’s not to say that MBV is a calculated throwback, but it’s hard to ignore the reviews. Countless reviewers have likened it to Loveless while simultaneously praising the album. Ian Wade of the BBC called it familiarity “comforting.” It’s difficult to imagine so many critics of the first decade of the century would have smiled on those qualities in the very teeth of reports that Shields was virtually reinventing music. Its reception in the here and now is being conditioned, in other words, by our changing relationship to the 90s.
Is nostalgia the primary ingredient in that relationship? It seems doubtful. The 90s are hardly a decade over which many of us will wax nostalgic. Probably there is no essential break between the nature of youth in one generation and the next, the characters that distinguish them being mostly matters of emphasis, like light cast through the different facets of a jewel. If so, then frustration was the keynote of the decade, much as it had been in the punk uprising of the 1970s, only without the exothermic reaction. Not without reason was ’91 called the year that punk broke. The ’80s had sapped the feeling that youth could change their own circumstances. The disaffected youth of Gen X and Gen Y turned first to causes far from home—think Save the Rainforests rather than Anarchy in the UK—and then to the more manageable domain of their own hobbies.
Who, then, could manage nostalgia about a decade with so much irresolvable frustration? The Baby Boomers could at least look back to the 60s as an era of profound social hope, or to the 70s as a period of “wising up.” When those of us who came of age in the ’90s look back, we tend to do so through the lens of a show like Portlandia, which portrays its pseudo/eponymous locale as a kind of time-displaced utopia, at once laughable and sympathetic. In the opening sketch of the pilot, the show even pitched its conceit by billing Portland as the city where the “dream of the 90s” still thrived. That’s a believable conceit not only because the ’90s dreamed so small—think artisanal knot shops and competitive hide-and-seek leagues—but also because it would be just like the ’90s to withdraw itself to a single, out-of-the-way burg. Its big ambition was to be harmless.
MBV is no antidote to those frustrations, but our receptiveness may signal a desire to move beyond the ironic detachment that dominated much of the era. In harking back to Loveless, the new album loops us back to the beginning of the decade, when our frustrations seemed like they might still give way to something radical and lovely. Like the rumors that were, for more than 20 years, the most palpable expression of the band’s existence, the substance of the new songs is built mostly on promise. It matters less that MBV is not (and likely could not have been) all that was promised during the last 22 years, than that it sounds like a return to the promise frustrated by all those years.