Sometimes, albums come along and change everything. Pet Sounds is a case in point; different enough to make even The Beatles alter course, it could only have been a Beach Boys record yet it pushed the band into a new place, and pulled the rest of the pop world with it. Loveless worked in the same way; coming from an obscure eighties Irish indie band, it sent seismic tremors all around, pushing the band to a new creative high.
Coming out of Dublin in 1983, Kevin Shields (vocals, guitar), Colm Ó Cíosóig (drums), Bilinda Butcher (vocals, guitar) and Debbie Googe (bass) were a dark, introspective rock band that married the blistering power and energy of punk with a melancholic and artistic edge. The sound was from the very beginning dense and compressed, essentially a wall of wailing, astringent noise under which some light melodies were carefully buried. As the band and its members aged, the rough edges were taken off, leaving the music in a very special place. It fused raw power with a rather lovely fragrant feeling, the result being quite mesmeric yet provocative. Had The Cocteau Twins got rougher and rawer instead of going in the direction of the beautiful, sparse, sultry Victorialand, they could have easily intersected with My Bloody Valentine around 1987…
After signing to Creation in 1988, the band’s sound began to show signs of greatness. The You Made Me Realise EP and Isn’t Anything LP (both 1988) were superb slices of artful indie music, in some ways the spiritual heir to Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psycho Candy (1985) in the combination of lilting sub-Velvet Underground tunes buried under a wall of noise and reverb. Label boss Alan McGee must have been enchanted, because he gave the nod for the band to begin its magnum opus in 1989.
Released on 4 November 1991, the time Loveless took to create hints at the machinations behind the scene. It saw lead singer Kevin Shields push the limits of the studio equipment he had available to him, along with a vast array of engineers and other staff from many different studios. The cost to record it was rumoured to be £250,000, which makes it one of the most expensive indie albums ever, and some say it eventually bankrupted Creation. Needless to say the label fell out with Shields badly and the working relationship with terminated soon after the album’s release.
After two years waiting and countless changes of recording venue, Creation’s Dick Green reportedly phoned Kevin Shields in tears, on the edge of a nervous breakdown, demanding it was delivered. It wasn’t, and things went from bad to worse with both Shields and Butcher reputedly getting tinitus; meanwhile Green’s hair was said to have gone grey overnight! I remember countless stories in New Musical Express speculating on whether the album would ever be released. Shields later said rather mischievously that the album only took four months of work over the three year period.
The album is beautiful, brooding, dark, dense and expansive, but it is not easy to listen to – not least because of layer upon layer of heavily EQ’d guitar crashing and wailing in front of the sparse but close-miked harmonies. It has little stereo effect, feeling more like a big lump of sound centre stage. Extensive use is made of a tremolo bar on Shields’ guitar; this gives it weird, dreamy and sometimes psychedelic feel. Tracks are routines bounced onto one another and there’s a lot of wah-wah too, making the short, simple but often beautiful songs harder to listen to than they could be; there’s the sense that you have to invest yourself to get anything out of Loveless. Even now, many still don’t.
Critical reception was mixed, but the serious music writers knew it was special. Special enough to inspire a whole sub-genre of indie which lazily became labelled ‘shoegazing’; in truth there was a new wave of (often Oxford-based) ‘ambient-indie’ crossover bands including Ride, Slowdive and Chapterhouse which attempted to build on the foundations Loveless had laid. This music was contemplative, layered and melodic. In world terms, you could argue that Radiohead rode this particular train in order to achieve its early success, too. Many have now forgotten this album, but it was unquestionably an important long player which had a huge effect on a small number of people – who then went off and reshaped nineties music, just as Pet Sounds had a quarter of a century before.