Perhaps the most surprising thing about this album is how unsurprising it is: "mbv" basically sounds exactly like you'd expect the "Loveless" follow-up to sound. For all of bandleader Kevin Shields' much-vaunted perfectionism (the studio bills for "Loveless" reportedly nearly put the band's old label, Creation, out of business), it's an album that seemingly could have come out in 1996 just as easily as today. Even the song titles feel familiar: "Only Tomorrow," "Is This and Yes," "Nothing Is."
Having said that, it's lovely. The band's hallmarks are the same -- the surging waves of guitars, Belinda Butcher's cooing vocals, the amorphous washes of sound -- but the delivery has changed a bit. The rhythms are tighter and more martial; the guitars are sharper, less tremolo'ed and blurred; the sounds a bit crisper. But with many of the songs, you can almost identify the song or moment from "Loveless" that is being evoked.
Only on the second half of the album does the band break the mold. "New You" is an unexpectedly straightforward, spare (for them), shimmering slice of pop that is probably the most single-worthy track of the band's career, with a nearly danceable rhythm, winsome melody and almost symphonic counter-melody. But the last two tracks are where the adventure lies.
The penultimate song, "Nothing Is," is a jarring, hypnotic, driving instrumental that almost feels like their take on the early Velvet Underground: a repetitive chunk of blurry chords that verges on sounding like a modulated tape loop. And the closing "Wonder 2" is a disorienting blend of elements that just barely fit together: a scattered rhythm, rapidly strummed acoustic guitars, disembodied Belinda vocals, jarring sounds – hornet-like guitars, a jet-engine roar – weaving in and out of the mix in a way reminiscent of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows." Here is one of the few places on the album where the band uses "Loveless" as a jumping-off point to something else.
"MBV" isn't the milestone "Loveless" was – and it's unfair to expect it to be. To quote one comment on Facebook, "It's like they found a new color. I don't expect them to find another one." And while the album contains fewer surprises than we might have hoped, there are enough new ideas here to tide us over for a while -- just hopefully not for another 21 years …