1991: Three Albums, Three Books

By Spencer Cawein Pate

Like so many other My Bloody Valentine fans the world over, I stayed up late on the night of Saturday, February 2, sitting in the dark and blasting their triumphant new album mbv–their first in over two decades!–on repeat. Aside from the feeling of relief that comes when a much delayed, much anticipated record actually exceeds our modest-but-cautiously-optimistic expectations, I couldn’t help but wish I had a book like Mike McGonigal’s volume on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless (part of the 33 1/3 series of books on individual albums), a book that revealed exactly when, where, and how every song was recorded during the album’s infamously protracted production process. Now that I have mbv on CD, where it sounds exquisite, I find myself wanting such a book even more.

Until then, we’re fortunate to have three great books on the musical masterpieces of 1991, one of the most important years in the history of rock. Before the term “post-rock” became a narrow aesthetic signifier, it originally indicated a sense of unbounded possibility and a broadly experimental approach to the traditional form and content of rock music. The three albums from 1991 that best exemplified this limitless ideal of post-rock were Slint’s Spiderland, which boasted stunningly complex songs spun from rock instrumentation stripped back to its minimalist essentials; Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, whose maximalist, improvisatory approach melted down rock, classical, and jazz into one seamless whole; and My Bloody Valentine’s aforementioned Loveless, which turned rock music inside out, inverting the relationship between texture and structure.

Through his interviewing of the primary sources responsible for one of the all-time great records, McGonigal’s Loveless is meticulously detailed, exploding the myths that have accrued around the making of the album while simultaneously revealing a true story that is just as fascinating as the apocryphal legends. Even better is Scott Tennent’s 33 1/3 volume on Spiderland–my pick for the single best album of the nineties. In a scrupulously-researched examination of a record that has been shrouded in mystery since its release–a record that is beginning to seem almost wholly unprecedented and timeless–Tennent illuminates the creation of Spiderland and contextualizes its historical and biographical milieux without detracting from its essentially enigmatic nature. Tennent’s telling of the band’s story is utterly compelling, but his insightful technical analysis of the songs, his brilliant discussion of the lyrics, and the connections he draws between the long shadow of Slint’s influence and countless bands over the next twenty years are the highlights of this brief but superb book. It’s one of the finest works of music criticism I’ve ever read.

Finally, while Rob Young’s magisterial history of British folk music and culture, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music only deals with Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock and Mark Hollis’ self-titled solo album in the concluding chapter (which also discusses Kate Bush and David Sylvian), it’s a mind-expanding (not to mention record-collection-expanding) book every music fan should read regardless. Young’s weaving of Talk Talk into the folk tradition is clever and I think ultimately correct, as Hollis’ lyrical concerns exemplify the romanticism inherent within folk music. The book features a lovely narrative of the recording of those three classic records, but the main reason to read Electric Eden is Young’s prose, which he honed for years as a writer and editor for The Wire magazine, a British journal of experimental and underground music. Young has a rare gift for describing the affective qualities of music in a continuously surprising, thoughtful, and synaesthetic style. For anyone who has listened to the records in question, Young’s descriptions feel objectively right.

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