By: Jack Stein
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Imagine, if you will, a naive 16-year old listening to Loveless for the first time. As “Only Shallow” erupts with seismic fury through my shitty earbuds, the tectonic plates beneath my understanding of pop music shift haphazardly, beautifully, vexingly. This was nothing like Red Hot Chili Peppers, nor Radiohead (the apex of my “experimental” music corner at the time.) In fact, it was unlike anything that I had ever heard at all, the blissful yet menacing guitars melting into one another, coalescing into a roiling sea of multi-faceted and glistening fury. That pretty pink album cover sure was a red herring.
Now, imagine the same teen treating this album with the same reverential, near-obsessive tenacity that some show towards Terrence Malick films, Ulysses or The Waste Land. Insatiable, I was determined to burrow into this confounding hieroglyph of a record until I understood exactly what was going on beneath the layers upon endless layers of static swath. Every gorgeously muddled female vocal, every swirling guitar pattern, every feedback-drenched squall was a puzzle that was mine to decode, and mine only. Aligned with the solipsistic and narcissistic way that most adolescents approach their world, trying to glean any personal meaning that we can from our surroundings, I was damned sure that this code was one I could crack. I mean, OK Computer had been pretty difficult too, right?
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Fast-forward seven years later to the month, and I still haven’t figured out Loveless’ maddeningly masked charms. Trying to “get” the album is akin to grabbing air, its cornucopia of sonic snakes and ladders belying a cheshire cat grin of all-knowing. Any attempt to grasp what this album “means” is feeble at best, the waves of dissonance pushing you under the surface just as you seem to arrive at some sort of enlightenment. Band leader Kevin Shields certainly knew what he wanted when he nearly bankrupted his record label creating this monster in 1991, but hell if any of us mere mortals ever figure it out.
While this was perplexing and confounding seven years earlier, the ambiguity of this beautiful mess of a record is what helped it become one of the most revered albums of the last 25 years. The short list of seminal albums in that time includes this, Kid A/OK Computer (pick one), Daydream Nation, and not a whole lot else. This thing defies comparison, categorization, and any sort of insipid analysis, e.g. “this song clearly means this.” The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was famous (and frustrating to many) for refusing to acknowledge that his novels or poems ever were “about” anything; those who attempted to boil Lolita or Pale Fire down to some trite academic sound bite were scorned for not just reading the damn book on its own terms.
Nabokov, just like Shields does here on record, made a valid point, one that we often lose sight of as we gorge ourselves with music from the blogosphere, hurriedly chasing down the ever-subjective “meaning” from the records and mp3s that we inhabit. Why do we even care? Why not allow the art to unfold itself at its own pace, rather than imbuing it with all sorts of personal agendas, nostalgia and self-referential banality?
Loveless helped me see Nabokov’s point more clearly. I mean, just listen to this thing. The aforementioned “Only Shallow” shakes with fury; “Soon” glides and pirouettes in a singularly, icily beautiful manner; personal album highlight “To Here Knows When” is the stuff of dreams, cooing vocals rocking you to sleep while the buzz saw guitars swarm like angered bees, evoking both nightmarish anxiety and narcotic calm. Quite frankly, these ten tracks are among the most beautiful that I have ever heard on one record. While perfection may be inherently unattainable, Loveless comes pretty damn close.
While much has been written over the years about the importance of this record for kicking down the doors between pop and noise, or introducing kids such as yours truly to a world of sonic dissonance that had been previously obscured, I believe that its most lasting impact is that of forcing hordes of listeners to appreciate art on its own terms. As a singularly diffuse artifact of auditory beauty, Loveless is not simply “listened to”; it makes one listen to their own thoughts, their own perceptions of what a record can do. Seven years later, the ways I look at the world are markedly different, and I’d be lying if I said that this development didn’t have something to do with the eternally cryptic charms of Loveless.
NOTE: Loveless was recently remastered and re-released. Here’s to hoping that it reaches as many listeners as it certainly deserves to.