I can remember everything about the first time I heard My Bloody Valentine’s third album.
Not just where I was and who I was with, but what time of day it was, what the weather was like outside, how the light fell in the room. It was as if everything burned into my memory, because time suddenly froze when I put it on, as it’s supposed to when you get a shock. A few months before, I’d heard John Peel play the single that seemed to transform My Bloody Valentine from a very also-ran kind of indie band to the centre of things, You Made Me Realise, and I’d been rooted to the spot: it was loud and distorted, with a hammering riff that drove itself into your head and an inexplicable middle section consisting of formless noise. I’d expected the album to sound similar. That was the shock: it didn’t. You Made Me Realise was an incredible record, but it fitted with trends in indie music at the time, particularly American indie music: Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr. Isn’t Anything didn’t. It sounded like no other music I’d ever heard.
It still sounds like nothing else today, nearly 25 years later. Given the degree of influence My Bloody Valentine had over what you might call alt-rock, that’s not for want of trying on the part of other bands. Almost from the moment it was released, people started trying to copy what My Bloody Valentine had done on Isn’t Anything. They’re still trying to copy it – you can hear its echoes in everything from chillwave to witch house to cloud rap; there are videos on YouTube devoted to trying to replicate the unearthly guitar effects that the band’s mastermind Kevin Shields achieved – and yet no one’s really managed it. If you want evidence that the recording studio can be a mysterious, mythic place, less a laboratory than an alchemist’s den, then here it is. Blessed with a drummer who played like Keith Moon in the throes of a nervous breakdown, given to strumming their guitars while holding onto the tremolo arm, so that the chords kept swaying in and out of tune, My Bloody Valentine would have probably been an incredible-sounding band whoever produced them, but by the time Shields finished doing whatever it was that he did at the mixing desk, they appeared to be beaming their music from another planet.
There’s something utterly inscrutable about the sound of Isn’t Anything. Nearly 25 years later, I listen to a track like All I Need, the drums mimicking a heartbeat, barely audible beneath two guitars that sound nothing like guitars – they sound like Formula One cars taking corners at speed – the vocals murmuring somewhere inbetween, and I still can’t fathom how Shields came to the conclusion that a song should sound like this, let alone how he went about turning that conclusion into reality. I listen to No More Sorry, a song that seems to be written from the point of view of a victim of child abuse, a doleful voice and a guitar occasionally playing a kind of broken-down riff surrounded by music where literally every instrument appears to be shuddering and I think: how on earth did you end up here?
The sound was enveloping, but it didn’t feel warm or cossetting. It felt dark and strange, disorientating, transporting, a bit unsettling and sickly, like the woozy, all-consuming head rush you’d get after inhaling something you really shouldn’t have, or the way you feel immediately before you faint. And it changed on every track: the sound-world of Feed Me With Your Kiss – dark, sexual, somehow heavy without corresponding to any of the clichés of heavy rock – was utterly different to the strange, disembodied funk of Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside) or SueIsFine, which sounded like rock music falling apart in front of your very ears. Despite the oddness of the sound, they were fantastic songs: better songs, I always think, than Shields wrote for Isn’t Anything’s more lauded follow-up Loveless. People talk a lot about how groundbreaking and influential My Bloody Valentine were, how terrifyingly loud they were live, how eventually Shields seemed to send everyone who worked with him – and possibly himself – mad in the process of trying to turn the sounds in his head into a reality. But they never talk about how beautiful the melodies he wrote were, which seems a shame. Not as much of a shame as how little music he’s made, or at least released, in the last 22 years. Then again, no one else has caught up with what he did two decades ago.
Alexis Petridis is The Guardian’s Chief Rock And Pop Critic and the Music Editor of Esquire Magazine