The Student Playlist

Showcasing the Best New Music, Curating the Classics

CULT ’80s: My Bloody Valentine – ‘Isn’t Anything’

Influenced: Slowdive, Ride, Lush, Curve, Mazzy Star, The Verve, Primal Scream, Smashing Pumpkins, Spiritualized, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Dandy Warhols, The Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, Sigur Ros, Broadcast, Mew, Engineers, Secret Machines, M83, Toro Y Moi, Fuck Buttons, Explosions In The Sky, The Antlers, Deafheaven, Hookworms, Washed Out

Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Wire, Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr., Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth

It has been a whopping 30 years since the release of My Bloody Valentine‘s Isn’t Anything, and still there isn’t anything quite like it. This is not for lack of trying, however, as it has influenced countless bands in the shoegaze scene, with groups tirelessly attempting to mimic its distinct sound but repeatedly coming up short. Isn’t Anything is something truly special. Having stood the test of time without being yet bested – except arguably by themselves with 1991’s successor Loveless shows that it was something utterly unique, revolutionary in its own time and influential three decades later.

It is interesting that in the years leading up to the release of what is now arguably one of the most supreme alternative rock records of the ’80s, My Bloody Valentine were for a long time considered one of many run-of-the-mill British indie rock group managing scrape out an existence in the scene at the time, with a stack of singles, EPs and one complete mini-album (Ecstasy And Wine) that amounted to their discography. Their sound was often likened to that of The Jesus & Mary Chain’s noise-rock, but virtually nothing about them was considered ground-breaking. The departure of original vocalist Dave Conway was the first event among many that lead to the creation of the seminal record that is Isn’t Anything.

READ MORE: My Bloody Valentine // ‘Loveless’ at 30 years old

With their roots in Dublin, My Bloody Valentine was started in 1984 by guitarist Kevin Shields and drummer Colm O’ Ciosoig. The band shifted around from the Netherlands to Berlin to London, ultimately cutting their losses with Conway and acquiring bassist Debbie Googe and vocalist/guitarist Bilinda Butcher. It was with this that My Bloody Valentine was fully formed and born, and this new sound-baby recorded for four different labels before landing with Creation Records, though it was not till the 1988 release of EP You Made Me Realise that the band was brought to life.

The band’s previous noisy indie-pop sound was a slow but retrospectively short-lived constant before ‘You Made Me Realise’ made everyone… realise. Shields had resigned to his avant-garde roots, and something that was originally conceived for a joke was met with absolute shock and awe and became their first release for Creation – and the first apple to drop from the fruitful tree that Isn’t Anything later grew from.

Thanks to bands like Dinosaur Jr, Hüsker Dü and Big Black, audiences had become receptive to the intricate sonic hums and resonances of the guitar, and this cleared a pathway for the Valentines to pave out their future. Drawing inspiration from these bands, Kevin Shields commandeered the creative meld of sound and commenced crafting Isn’t Anything. An album with the actual instruments removed, standing in its place the sounds channeled by the effects units. This record was strewn with disturbed tempos, disordered rhythms, unusual tunings and honeyed harmonies. The largely sexual notion of the lyrical content, tied in with the assortment of strange sounds, sees the music interchange between the corporeal, lustful core of ‘Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)’, similar to the also sensual subject matter of ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’ and ‘Lose My Breath’, to the unsettling ethereal audio of ‘All I Need’.

What was it about the vague and unstructured tempest that resonated so well with listeners at that specific point in pop history? With the late ’80s political stoicism, young people had for a long time turned away from politics and the conservative uprising slipping away from anything too real, all together deciding that it was time to hibernate until the world was a better place to be awake in. L7 would later go on to reprimand this generational attitude in their 1992 hit ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, but inertia and inactivity had become the shining light of alternative rock. In 1988 Sonic Youth brought to the world Daydream Nation which resonated with the slumberous attitudes of Western youth, however the Valentines had already explored this idea one year previous with ‘(You’re) Safe In Your Sleep (From This Girl)’ on the Ecstasy release. It then became apparent that the widely yearned-for secret behind My Bloody Valentine’s distinguished sound was the nether zone between sleep deprivation and drowsiness.

Over a recording period of only two weeks, during which members of the band were operating on as little as two hours of sleep per night, the bulk of the album was recorded in Wales. Bilinda Butcher describing the consequence of this said: “Often, when we do the vocals, it’s 7:30 in the morning: I’ve usually fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing. Maybe that’s why it’s languorous. I’m usually trying to remember what I’ve been dreaming about when I’m singing.” Their methods, though considerably unconventional, only add to the wonder of this album as the whole thing conjures a dream-like state.

The record was received well by critics. To highlight a few, Q’s Stuart Maconie perceived Isn’t Anything as the first full-length expression of this remarkable new sound: “gossamer vocals and insinuating melodies glimpsed through sheets of blurred, opaque noise.” Melody Maker described the album’s sound as “swoon-songs, oblivious, languorous vocals and out-of-focus guitars which are like being taken to the brink of consciousness and held there.” The Quietus’s Taylor Parkes much later labelled the album as “livid, lurid and lucid, it’s the shattering racket of the moment, an audio snapshot of the overwhelmed senses, a noise like nothing you’ve ever heard, but everything you’ve ever felt.” Cultivated in the wake of the release of this infectious album were frenzied fans on an enormous scale. The album has since been included in many lists of big-time publications such as The Guardian, who featured Isn’t Anything on their list of “1000 Albums to Hear Before You Die”, as well as being placed number 16 in their “Alternative Top 100 Albums” list. Pitchfork hailed the album as the 4th best shoegaze album of all time.

Isn’t Anything crowned My Bloody Valentine pioneers of shoegaze, up there among Cocteau Twins and The Jesus & Mary Chain as some of the most commonly cited precursors of this genre, and since the release of this album many bands gave gone on in attempt to replicate something quite as lucid. However, the creative innovation of this record was unparalleled, despite the emergence of bands such as Lush and Ride who managed to blunder into the same ball-park of sound as the Valentines, whilst Shields zealously salved away in the studio, but failed to match the same mastermind musicality that donned Isn’t Anything such a momentous record. For album with a name so evocative of nothingness and vagueness, it is ironic to say that Isn’t Anything is certainly something. (Rebecca Corbett)

Listen to Isn’t Anything by My Bloody Valentine here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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