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When You Wake, You're Still in a Dream

by Simon Reynolds

Somewhere between Sonic Youth's butterflies-in-the-stomach-with razor-blade-wings feel of barbed dreaminess, the blurred radiant surge of Dinosaur Jr and Husker Du, and A.R. Kane's delicately nuanced noise. Somewhere in between but decidedly of itself lies My Bloody Valentine's noise. Their guitars are rampant, clamorous, craving, grazed, engorged, honeyed, horny, somehow extremely oral, somehow obscurely irritable. In 1988's rock pharmacopia, My Bloody Valentine classify as a deliriant and a hallucinogen - thy're hyped up and out-of-it, carnal and unbodied.

'Feed Me With Your Kiss' is a brutal, off-centre slam, whose beautiful melody is almost wilfully crushed in the melee. The chorus - 'so feed...me...with...your...kiiiiiiss' - is a languishing swoon. As always, My Bloody Valentine sound as though their desires have put them in peril. As always, they seem to have been ravished to the point of debility. 'Vampiric' was the first word that sprang into my mind, on hering it. And, of course, the way the vampire myth works is as sexual allegory - the rush of blood away from the head, the idea that excess brings on pallor and neurastenia, that sex makes you ill.

What My Bloody Valentine began with the 'You Made Me Realise EP', and continue on the 'Feed Me' EP and the 'Isn't Anything' album, is a departure from the traditional rock musculature of riff and powerchord, towards a new and pirvate lexicon of sounds and effects - shapeless surges, swathes, precipices, vortices, wraithes and detonations. They make the guitar sound like a windscreen shattering into a jackfrost pattern, like an airborne choir of drones. 'I Believe' is an ecstatic dirge; a surge so dyslexic, its headlong rush can seem more like an immobile, suspended ache and shimmer of sound. 'All I Need', almost dispensing with a beat, is even more directionless, a whoosh and swirl from nowhere, a trembling in the air, a little nebula of daydream. What I like is that a noise often seems origin-less, you can't imagine the physical act that brought it into being, there's just an amorphous, irresistible tide of sound, a contourless radiance.

Singer/guitarist Kevin Shields explains: 'We had this idea, it sounds pretentious, but we call it "glide guitar". That's the effect you're talking about, where the sounds just seem to be there, floating around.'
Colm O'Ciosig (drums): 'We call it the "not really there sound". I've always liked the sound of something that's been copied about ten times.'
Kevin: 'The thing is, the sound literally isn't all there. It's actually the opposite of rock'n'roll. It's taking all the guts out of it, there's no guts, just the remnants, the outline. It's like - did you ever walk around in the city on a Sunday, somewhere like the East End, or the Angel - and there's this dead, where-is-everybody feel. Nobody's about, all these millions of buildings, but not a soul around. That kind of deserted feel. Not spooky, you are not made uncomfortable. But you're not comfortable either.'
Bilinda Jayne Butcher (vocals/guitar): 'It's like that bit in the middle of "You Made Me Realise", where it just levitates. You know it's there, and you know it's coming, but when it happens, half the time you forget it's on. Your mind completely wanders, you forget it, then you remember it. When you listen to it, you don't know what's going to happen, or how it's going to end, and that's because when we recorded it we didn't know what was going to happen either.'

'Instrumental', the bonus 7-inch included with 'Isn't Anything', is their most eerie departure yet. The band more or less abscond, leaving only a hip hop rhythm track over which this ectoplasm weaves in and out of silence in a mournful, private dance. It's like something by Erik Satie arranged by Keith Levine. Imagine the ghostly echo of ancient psalms drifting through an abbey in a drowned village.

My Bloody Valentine are remarkable for reconciling the two great pleasures in rock today, apparently at odds with each other: the masculine pleasure of the oppressive, spine-crushing arse-quake, and the feminine bliss of the border-disolving, spine-melting oceanic wash. But then both are forms of surrender to sound.

Another angle to this is the way they hark back to that sixties' combination of the brutal and the fey - groups like John's Children and The Eyes, or Love and The Velvet Underground. With the Anglo freakbeat dementia of John's Children, The Eyes, and The Creation, as the object of desire slips out of reach, becomes more and more hallucinated, so the desire becomes intransitive and self-consuming. On 'I Believe', the Valentines' effete 'ooooh oooooh's disappear into the music: if Mick Hucknall was to sing this sacrament of devotion, it'd be all clenched testifying from the gut and under the spotlight, and insidious show of strength, not the sound of someone weak for love.

Maybe, by their strange working methods (recording an album in two weeks, sleeeping one to two hours a night) My Bloody Valentine have discovered a natural psychedelia. Maybe it accounts for the creepy feeling of disreality that inhabits ome of their songs, or the sleepy sensuality of others.

Which brings us to 'Slow'. With its monstrous sex-grind of fuzzed-up bass, unearthly guitar drones and enervated vocals, 'Slow' is a smitten, kissed-out chrysalis of bliss to rival A.R. Kane. Above all, 'Slow' sounds INCESTUOUS. It seems to seethe with the most illicit, buried longing of all: to drown in 'flesh of my flesh'. The lyric - 'and I got no reason...on top of me sugar I don't know your name...feeling bad feeling good/feeling like I never should...' - seems to be about slipping outside identities, the arbitrariness of language, into a topsy-turvy, amnesiac zone. All outlines blur in what MBV call 'the chaos of desire'.
Kevin: 'You can get so hyped up, so lustful, that you're on the edge of being really dangerous. You're carried away by lust, so that you're really irrational. You're not yourself at all. You might not be happy about it after the event.'

What's sexy about 'Slow' and 'Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)', its sequel on 'Isn't Anything', is that they're CLOSE. There's a humid, humming, head-spinning stupor. And there's a near-intolerable intimacy: the songs go so close to things it's hard to see them. The normal perspective that allws us to manage time and space in a business-minded, livable way, disappears. We're in such proximity to the supremely concrete stupidity of sex, there's something hallucinatory about the experience: 'too real to feel', to quote Loop. And this is the Acid experience: the moment becomes so vivid and enhanced it threatens to engulf you, suck you outside linear time. So you flicker between immersion and detachment, 'death' and survival.

Languor has been written out of modern pop. Sex in pop is all upfront, aerobic urgency, or worse, hackneyed, exhausted ciphers of bygone raunch. What's sensual about MBV, A.R. Kane and a few other renegades from pop's atheletic sexuality, is there languorous, swoony voices, and the handle this gives them on the 'voluptuous infantilism' of languor, 'the gentle hemorrhage which flows from no specific point in the body' (Barthes).

Kevin: 'I'd almost forgotten about sixties' music, but then I saw this video of sixties' stuff. And what all those bands had in common whas this laziness in the way they sang. Ray Davies, Syd Barrett...their voices just seemed to come out of their mouths, without any kind of big put-on. The opposite of Bono, that projection of passion. In this film of The Kinks, there were millions of fans, but Davies was just letting it loll out of his mouth: there was something small and intimate about it, but something huge because of the audience's screaming. Or someone like Rager Daltrey, who started out all sloppy and untutored, but then he learned to sing, and he got bombastic: 'Look at me, I'm using my voice...' A real seventies' thing, a kind of muso attitude to the voice, putting on a real performance.'
Bilinda: '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. Just got out of bed vocals! I'm ususally trying to remember what I've been dreaming about, when I'm singing.'

Maybe My Bloody Valentine's urge to savage and smother the loveliness of their melody and harmony lines is linked to the image on the cover of 'You Made Me Realise' - the child-woman holding a blade against her neck. Maybe beauty is felt more keenly when it's faced by the threat of being marrend or destroyed. Maybe that's why you can sometimes be possessed by the morbid impulse to think about accidents or horrors befalling loved ones, in order to enjoy each sharp spasm of anguished empathy.

Why did they choose that image of the girl with the knife?
Kevin: 'That picture was glamorous, but it wasn't something that anyone could get a sexual kick from, or at least be relaxed about enjoying on that level. In a way, the music's like that...'
The way you lacerate the soft, sweet melodies...
'It wouldn't be interesting otherwise. The whole suicide theme had a point to it, at the time: there was a lot of chaos around us. But we could never stand onstage and sing about 'suicide' with any personal knowledge. We only use the word in two songs. That song 'Sue Is Fine' - well, actually, I'm singing 'suicide'...It's a real pleading for attention song. The music has this jumbled up, wanting wanting wanting, gimme gimme gimme, I need it feel: it's about not knowing what you want, but wanting it desperately.'

And 'suicide' here is more a case of being brought to 'the end of me' by the chaos of unnameable, unrequitble desires.

Another preocupation is ambiguity or contradiction, the oxymoronic quality of the profoundest feelings in life: the violence of sweetness, the capacity of beauty to do damage, the hair's breadth double-edge between love and hate. The name My Bloody Valentine, and songs like 'Thorn', 'Cigarette in Your Bed' and 'Strawberry Wine' all bear this out.

Kevin: '"Thorn" is just this idea of roses being the ultimate image of delectability, but when you reach out to grab the loveliness you get cut up. "Strawberry Wine" is a real drink - very sweet, but with a real whisky bang to it. So the song is about something that's sweet but heavy. Intoxicating, which literally means poisonous. It's about how I used to wander up and down this street where this girl lived, who I was obsessed with: my head was full of dreams of her, but all the time the reality of the situation was me tramping up and down this dirty, miserable street.
'"Cigarette in Your Bed" is a kind of play on words. You could have the stereotypical, post-coital smoke. But if you actually put a cigarette in someone's bed when they're asleep, then they're burnt alive. It's about being so close to someone, but not a very nice close. So you get a line like "scratching your eyes out/with a smile", where the other person just isn't aware of the negativity beneath the surface.'

There's a certain kind of vocal pallor that's the mark of someone who's never lived, someone jejeune: there's another kind of ashen voice that's the mark of someone who's come very close to being extinguished, who's lived to the limits of life. There are empty voices (the dinky, dainty power pop voice of The Primitives, Darling Buds, etc, ad nauseam). And there are emptied voices, drained by an access of bliss or dread. Spent ('to spend' used to mean 'to come' in Victorian slang. Now it means used up, ruined). Think of Alex from A.R. Kane, John Cale's 'Music for a New Society'.

Bilinda Jayne Butcher's ballads - 'Cigarette in Your Bed', 'No More Sorry', 'Lose My Breath' - mark an outer limit in avant-rock's retreat from the vivacious, full-bodied voice. More death-warmed-up than even Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Bilinda's sufferings seem to have brought her to a stranded, bleached-out consciousness. Her burnt-out torch songs are set, to hugely forboding effect, against a massive wall of acoustic sound.

'"No More Sorry" is about being used and defiled by someone, but knowing that you're all right. It's about something that happened to me, but it's not meant to be self-pitying. It's not really a pop song, or something you'd even want to listen to. It's about taking too much and not wanting to take any more. "Lose My Breath" - when I wrote that I wasn't very well, I had this migraine, and kept wanting to go to sleep. That might have something to do with the atmosphere of the song. Partly, it's abou the fact that I can't breathe properly. When I'm in a state, I can't breathe or sing properly. But the other side is that my little boy Toby's got asthma. It's about my feelings about him, him being upset and not being able to cope with it, or understand.'

For My Bloody Valentine, bliss comes with the loss of agency and autonomy, (with all it's incombent anxieties of self-administration). Whether it's succumbing to the uncontrol of desire ('Slow'), offering yourself up on the altar of devotion ('I Believe ' pleads 'take me, take me, take me'), or sliding into the oblivion of sleep, what they look for is the moment when power slips out of their hands. Here's the female Valentines on the only expeiences that have affected them as much as their music.
Debbie (bass): 'Fever. You feel as if your body's drifting, as if you're not there. Your body acts of its own accord.'
Bilinda: 'Giving birth. It happened on a motorway, when I kept being caught in snowdrifts. I was in labour while I was driving. What was it like? Horrible but ecstatic.'

Originally appeared in Simon Reynold's book Blissed Out: The Raptures of Rock, 1990.. Copyright © Simon Reynold