Control Slips Away: My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything Revisited

My Bloody Valentine's debut album Isn't Anything was always overshadowed by the expensive Loveless. Now, a quarter of a century after its release, Ned Raggett explores the sound of a band in flux

At the start of the year, right when a rather long awaited third album proper from a band called My Bloody Valentine finally appeared, I dashed off some initial impressions. (And generally speaking they still hold, only I do really love the album all the more, though now I want to hear what’s next. Call me impatient.) Some years ago I wrote something pretty heavily detailed about their second album. Perhaps fitting that for the 25th anniversary of their first full length I say a few words here, but there’s some important context to dispatch with first different from the other two albums: at the time it came out I had no idea about this band at all. Not a peep, a smidgen, a hint. The funny thing is that something else also just had its 25th anniversary that means just as much to me as MBV in general and in looking back I had a similar situation — no idea it existed. At all.

Admittedly the differences between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Isn’t Anything are a little vast beyond that coincidence. (Though it would have been amazing if the former had somehow referenced the latter, or even the band.) But in the mutual bursts of retrospection I’ve been going through, it’s a little different than simply looking back on something that you enjoyed after the fact – it’s more like trying to capture a mindset. How in the world do you talk about something produced by someone so incredibly important to your own personal aesthetic but which was only heard in retrospect and refraction, always withdrawing away from it? And how do you remember what you were like before you even heard of the artists who created it?

I wonder what Isn’t Anything would have sounded like to my ears had I actually heard it then. The fall of 1988 was my first quarter away at college, and I was very much swimming in all sorts of random new impulses when it came to sonics. But I was only, just, hearing a bit more about bands like Sonic Youth, Husker Du and Dinosaur Jr. and all that around that time, where I’d never heard of them before at all. I wonder still what my perspective would have been like if I’d heard Isn’t Anything before I’d even actually heard those three other groups, all of whom cast such a ridiculous shadow over the album that it’s almost hard not to hear them through that lens.

But then again, that serves as a reduction of Isn’t Anything, not a celebration, and for over two decades it’s been fighting both where it came from and what came after it. Loveless as the canonised choice (and as noted I very much have helped in that) means IA has struggled a bit since – at least inasmuch as there’s discourse around it. Yet it’s the album more than any other that actually kicked off – without trying or meaning to – what became known as shoegaze, the one that when it emerged seemed to be soon complemented by a slew of further bands in the UK, a number of them appearing on the very same label, that dwelled in the realm of big but pretty riffs, a certain hazy delivery, a rumbling underpinning. Plenty of those acts were similarly inspired directly by those American avatars noted earlier but then all of a sudden there was a figurehead. Perhaps not surprising that Kevin Shields took his time creating a followup – when you’re just trying to create something in and of itself rather than codify a nonexistent approach to a sound, there has to be some sense of frustration at work.

What’s also become clearer over time is that Isn’t Anything is something that people almost can relate to more – it sounds like a band, performing, more often that not. (I’ve almost felt that MBV live over the years has been a case of trying for approximations of whatever it is Shields in particular hears in his head, whatever that perfect mix happens to be.) Given that the band had released plenty of singles and EPs over the previous years, it wasn’t like what was there was suddenly fully forged, but 1988 was the year they stepped up and transmogrified, first with the You Made Me Realise EP and the ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ single. Only the latter appeared in the US, its grind down of a central riff and woozy verses traded off between Shields and Bilinda Butcher turning into a joint collapsing slow invocation of the title that felt simultaneously like a slip into rampant pleasures and a building explosion. I still half think this almost invented part of grunge, but then again I am a weird fanboy on these matters.

But plenty of songs throughout aren’t quite as forcefully present as that song, and happily so. ‘Lose My Breath’ and ‘No More Sorry’ are fragile moments that would have their further echoes on later work, but almost amiably so musically – though the latter’s stop-start feeling added a bit of subtle drama, Butcher’s singing perfectly poised between warning and invocation, something very Cocteau Twins on the face of it but with its own wide-eyed energy and fierce control. It wasn’t anywhere near as stop-start as the opening ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’, Shields’s overt love for hip hop production to the fore as the spartan beats dictated the back-and-forth stomp and sway of the song, brisk but a perfect beginning.

There’s an overarching feeling, again more clearly sensed and sung here, of control starting to slip away, but happily, a series of risks worth taking. Reality is distorted constantly – song titles include ‘(When You Wake) You’re Still in a Dream’, ‘Nothing Much to Lose’, ‘I Can See It (But I Can’t Feel It)’. Then there’s ‘Sueisfine’, which sounds plenty – and intentionally – like ‘Suicide’ instead, a sense of an ultimate risk with no guarantees in the slightest. Even without the vaunted expense and production of Loveless there’s a wide variety on the album – ‘Cupid Come’ and its easy yearning feeling suddenly crashes into ‘(When You Wake) You’re Still In A Dream”s aggro run, ‘No More Sorry’ and its sparkling prettiness falls off a cliff into the yawning voids and swells of ‘All I Need’. You could call it a precursor to the majestic rise of ‘Sometimes’ one album later but again, that risks framing Isn’t Anything strictly as prelude – here, the shapes of the feedback and the blending of Shields and Butcher’s voices doesn’t suggest rise so much as extremely unsafe floating in space while simultaneously balanced on ice, with muffled drums theoretically a driving force but more a nervous, half-felt heartbeat. One slip and you’re gone, who knows where.

Isn’t Anything… is something, its own thing. It feels more like a partnership at work due to the audibility of Shields and Butcher at various points, a potential dialogue at play between two selves as much as internally. It’s not aiming to bring down firmaments – and who knows what Shields might have done if he had Loveless‘s budget and indulgence at work? But the relative limitations – again, in retrospect – were standard operating procedure for a band still making their mark, before ‘Soon’, ‘To Here Knows When’, ‘Only Shallow’ and the many echoes and after-echoes to come. An album recorded quickly for a label that could barely afford it from a band deciding to twist and mutate into something more than they had already been. It’s had its own legacy with time too, playing out sometimes in quieter home-recorded corners, sometimes as extension of rough-and-ready bleary, angry yet beautiful sprawling. And it still sounds good. That’s worth celebrating after 25 years for sure.

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