It’s gotta suck to be Isn’t Anything. Its position in history seals it as “the other My Bloody Valentine album that matters”, which normally would be an elite class. The problem is that the OTHER My Bloody Valentine album that matters happens to be Loveless, a straight-up legendary classic, and the generally accepted thesis of the entire genre of shoegaze. It doesn’t help that there’s not much company to share the breadth of the “failing to live up to big brother”: the band’s debut, This Is Your Bloody Valentine, is often left to the dust of history, and their 2013 comeback m v b was moderately well received but usually held in a different category. Its reputation also pales in comparison to the series of EPs the band put out, across which their sound evolved in a much more traceable way. My Bloody Valentine’s history seems intentionally convoluted to put Isn’t Anything in one of the most unfortunate positions in music history.
Of course, where there’s an underdog, there will be champions of said underdog. The most tiresome discussion in the history of noise music is “Isn’t Anything is the TRUE My Bloody Valentine masterpiece, not Loveless!” Said discussions range from sigh-inducing (when they’re started by people who just really love Isn’t Anything) to groan-inducing (people who think the only way to say something relevant about anything is to go against popular opinion) to rage-inducing (full on able bodied contrarians).
So let’s be really mean and dismiss this discussion outright: Isn’t Anything is not better then Loveless. Never in a thousand years. Never in the rise and fall of a million galactic empires. If you can accept this eventuality, Isn’t Anything becomes much less of a disappointment and instead takes on the guise of a pretty good noise pop album.
The most obvious (and refreshing) thing about Isn’t Anything is that it sounds nothing like Loveless. It’s still all distorted, but instead of a wave of sound it it’s more like shards. It has that same ethereal quality that Loveless has, like it comes from a different plane of existence. The guitars are still recognizably guitars, but they’re fiddled with enough to make it sound like you’re listening to some kind of gateway to oblivion. Despite all the alterations, it feels oddly raw, with an energy that works wonderfully.
The vocals add to this. Kevin Shields take a lot of the vocal duties on this album, and though he’s not a great singer his voice has a distant, longing feel to it that compounds on the fuzzy guitars. Bilinda Butcher is already a phenomenal vocalist whose strange presence gives her parts a fittingly mystical sound. She’s a ray of humanity in the ripples of icy guitar.
Since this is My Bloody Valentine, it’s better to consider the entire package rather than the individual songs, but I’d like to single out a few. “[When You Wake] You’re Still in a Dream” has a nice driving energy and a stinging sound. “Feed Me With You Kiss” has a super-heavy texture and a good showcase of vocalists playing off each other. My favorite is probably “Lose My Breath”, whose effect can only be described as “unnervingly sensual.”
So, we’ve got great textures, vocalists who fit, and a cohesive overall sound. Unfortunately, there are two major things holding back Isn’t Anything. They’re both in indirect comparison to Loveless, which might make some people groan, but they were impossible to ignore. The main difference between Loveless and Isn’t Anything, for me anyway, is in resonance. Isn’t Anything’s icy abrasiveness wants you to trip out and be unnerved, but too often struggles against its own inhumanity. There’s just not a lot of soul in it, even with all the technical experiments. Ironically, Loveless is full of love. It wants to sweep you away, pin you down and hold you under a constant tide of pure sensory overload. The painstakingly passionate polishing of the sound is infectious, making an experience that’s at once disarming, gorgeous, mystical, sexual, romantic, creepy, revitalizing, healing, essentially anything you want it to be. That emotional universality, expandable by the realms of the listener’s imagination, is what makes Loveless so special, and Isn’t Anything lacks that.
Much more of an issue is the songwriting. If there’s any criticism of my precious Loveless I will grit my teeth and bear, it’s that the unique sound is used to hide the fact that My Bloody Valentine really aren’t exceptional songwriters. Not bad, but not as good as their reputation might lead you to guess. On Loveless, they got around that though the immersive sound and a succession of pretty riffs. Isn’t Anything’s melodies are essentially just alright pop songs, and there are no major standouts to break up the monotony. Thankfully, most of the textures make up for this, but since they’re not as immediately memorable or engrossing as the ones on Loveless, it’s harder to ignore. There’s no big “LOOK AT ME, I’M SO PERFECT, I AM WHY THIS ALBUM RULES” moments to rival the likes of “When You Sleep” or “Soon.”
That’s just my stupid, Loveless-tainted opinion of course. On its own, Isn’t Anything is a perfectly fine and occasionally great album that’s truly worth of consideration as something other than “Loveless but worse and less famous.” Besides which, this is one truly trippy and memorable listen, even if you have to take some time to assimilate the sound.
Thematic Content: 3/5 I don’t have the energy or brainpower to decode My Bloody Valentine lyrics, so I’m just going to generalize based on the parts I do understand and assume it’s all about sex. I can think of worse framing devices for noise music.
Lyricism: 3/5 Likewise.
Diversity: 2/5 There’s shoegaze, and shoegaze, and…noise pop metal on “Feed Me With Your Kiss” I guess. That sounds like a cool genre.
Experience: Of all the times to run a family-friendly blog…
8/10. Best Song: Lose My Breath