My Bloody Valentine were scheduled to record at Blackwing Studios in Southwark, London for the month of February 1989, and intended to use the time to conceptualise a new, more studio-based sound for their second album. Shields said that Creation first believed the album could be recorded "in five days". According to Shields "when it became clear that wasn't going to happen, they [Creation] freaked." After several unproductive months, the band relocated in September to the basement studio The Elephant and Wapping, where they spent eight unproductive weeks. In-house engineer Nick Robbins said Shields made it clear from the outset that he (Robbins) "was just there to press the buttons." Robbins was quickly replaced by Harold Burgon, but according to Shields, Burgon's main contribution was to show the group how to use the in-studio computer. Burgon and Shields spent three weeks at the Woodcray studio in Berkshire working on the Glider EP, which Shields and Creation owner Alan McGee agreed would be released in advance of the album. Alan Moulder was hired to mix the Glider song "Soon" at Trident 2 studio in Victoria (the song would reappear as the closing track on Loveless). Shields said of Moulder, "As soon as we worked with him we realized we'd love to some more!" When the group returned to work on the album Moulder was the sole engineer Shields trusted enough to perform tasks such as miking the amplifiers; all the other credited engineers were told "We're so on top of this you don't even have to come to work." Shields has since stated that "these engineers—with the exception of Alan Moulder and later Anjali Dutt—were all just the people who came with the studio...everything we wanted to do was wrong, according to them," although the band did give credit on the album sleeve to anyone who was present during the recordings, "even if all they did was fix tea", according to Shields.
During the spring of 1990, Anjali Dutt was hired to replace Moulder, who had left to work with the bands Shakespears Sister and Ride. Dutt assisted in the recording of vocals and several guitar tracks. During this period, the band recorded in various studios, often spending just a single day at a studio before deciding that it was unsuitable. In May 1990, My Bloody Valentine settled on Protocol in Holloway as their primary location, and work began in earnest on the album, as well as a second EP, Tremolo. Like Glider, Tremolo contained a song—"To Here Knows When"—that would later appear on Loveless. The band stopped recording during the summer of 1990 in order to tour in support of the release of Glider. When Moulder returned to the project in August, he was surprised by how little work had been completed. By that point Creation Records was concerned at how much the album was costing. Moulder left again in March 1991 to work for the noise pop band The Jesus and Mary Chain.
In an interview with Select, Shields explained the stop-start nature of his recording, using "When You Sleep" as an example:
"We recorded the drums in September '89. The guitar was done in December. The bass was done in… er… April. 1990 we're in, now. Then nothing happens for a year really." So it doesn't have vocals at this stage? "No." Does it have words? "No." Does it even have a title? "No. It has a song number. 'Song 12' it was called. And… I'm trying to remember… the melody line was done in '91. The vocals were '91. There were huge gaps though. Months and months of not touching songs. Years. I used to forget what tunings I'd used."
The vocal tracks were taped in Britannia Row and Protocol studios between May and June 1991. This was the first time vocalist Bilinda Butcher was involved in the recording. Shields and Butcher hung curtains on the window between the studio control room and the vocal booth, and only communicated with the engineers when they would acknowledge a good take by opening the curtain and waving. According to engineer Guy Fixsen, "We weren't allowed to listen while either of them were doing a vocal. You'd have to watch the meters on the tape machine to see if anyone was singing. If it stopped, you knew you had to stop the tape and take it back to the top." On most days, the couple arrived without having written the lyrics for the song they were to record. Dutt recalled: "Kevin would sing a track, and then Bilinda would get the tape and write down words she thought he might have sung".
In July 1991, Creation agreed to relocate the production to Eastcote studio, following unexplained complaints from Shields. However, the cash-poor Creation Records was unable to pay the bill for their time at Britannia Row, and the studio refused to return the band's equipment. Dutt recalled, "I don't know what excuse Kevin gave them for leaving. He had to raise the money himself to get the gear out." Shields' unexpected and random behaviour, the constant delays, and studio changes were having a material effect both on Creation's finances and the health of their staff. Dutt later admitted being desperate to leave the project, while Creation's second-in-command Dick Green had a nervous breakdown around this time. Green later recalled, "It was two years into the album, and I phoned Shields up in tears. I was going 'You have to deliver me this record'." During this time, both Shields and Butcher became affected with tinnitus, and had to delay recording for a further number of weeks while they recovered. Concerned friends and band members suggested this was a result of the unusually loud volumes the group played at their shows. Shields dismissed these concerns as "Ill-informed hysteria". Although Alan McGee was still upbeat and positive about his investment, the 29-year-old Green, who by this time was opening the label's morning post "shaking with fear", became a concern to his co-workers. Publicist Laurence Verfaillie, aware of the label's inability to cover further studio bills, recalled Green's hair turning grey overnight. "He would have not gone grey if it was not for that album", Verfaillie said.
With the vocal tracks completed, a final mix of the album was undertaken with engineer Dick Meaney at the Church in Crouch End during the autumn of 1991; it was the nineteenth studio in which Loveless had been worked on. The album was edited on an aged machine that had previously been used to cut together dialog for movies in the 1970s. Its computer threw the entire album out of phase. Shields was able to put it back together from memory, yet when it came to mastering the album, to Creation's dismay, he needed 13 days, rather than the usual one day.
As the previously prolific band were unusually quiet, the UK music press began to speculate. Melody Maker calculated that the total recording cost had come close to £250,000; however, McGee, Green, and Shields dispute this. Shields argued that that estimated cost (and Creation's near-bankruptcy) was a myth exaggerated by McGee because the Creation owner "thought it would be cool." According to Shields, "The amount we spent nobody knows because we never counted. But we worked it out ourselves just by working out how much the studios cost and how much all the engineers cost. 160 thousand pounds was the most we could come to as the actual money that was spent." In Green's opinion, the Melody Maker's estimate erred on the low side, by £20,000. He said, "Once you'd even got it recorded and mixed, the very act of compiling, EQ-ing, etcetera took weeks on its own." In a December 1991 interview, Shields said that most of the money claimed to have been spent on the album was simply "money to live on" over three years, with the album itself only costing "a few thousand". He also claimed that the album represented only four months work over two years. Shields later said that most of the money spent was the band's own money, and that "Creation probably spent fifteen to twenty thousand pounds of their own money on it, and that's it. They never showed us any accounts, and then they got bought out by Sony."
While Butcher contributed about a third of the album's lyrics, most of the music on Loveless was written and performed by Shields. Shields stated, "I'm actually the only musician on the record except for the Colm song ['Touched']." Shields assumed Butcher's guitarist duties during the recording process; Butcher admitted that she had not minded because she felt she "was never a great guitarist". Bassist Debbie Googe did not perform on the album, though she received a credit on the album sleeve. Googe said, "At the beginning I used to go down [to the studio] most days but after a while I began to feel pretty superfluous so I went down less." Butcher explained, "for Kevin to actually translate to Debbie what he had in his head and play it right would have been an agonizing process." "It wasn't collaborative at all", Alan Moulder said of the album's recording. "Kevin had a clear view of what he wanted, but he never explained it."
Taking influence from the Wall of Sound practices established by the likes of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, Loveless was largely recorded in mono sound, as Shields felt it important that the album's sound consisted of "the guitar smack bang in the middle and no chorus, no modulation effect". Shields wavers his guitar's tremolo bar as he strums, which contributes, in part, to the band's distinctive sound. This technique—nicknamed "Glide guitar"—causes the guitar strings to bend slightly in and out of tune. Shields said that due to his use of the tremolo bar, "People were thinking it's hundreds of guitars, when it's actually got less guitar tracks than most people's demo tapes have." The guitarist asserted that unlike other bands of the shoegazing movement of the early 1990s, My Bloody Valentine did not use chorus or flanger pedals. He insisted, "No other band played that guitar like me [...] We did everything solely with the tremolo arm". Shields aimed to use "very simple minimal effects" which often were the result of involved studio work. He stated, "The songs are really simply structured. A lot of them are purposely like that. That way you can get away with a lot more when you mess around with the contents". In a 1992 Guitar World interview, Shields described how he achieved a sound akin to a wah-wah pedal on "I Only Said" by playing his guitar through an amplifier with a graphic equaliser preamp. After recording the track, he then bounced it to another track through a parametric equaliser while he adjusted the EQ levels manually. The interviewer asked if Shields could have achieved the same effect more easily by simply using a wah-wah pedal, to which the guitarist replied, "In attitude toward sound, yes. But not in approach."
All but two of the drum tracks are composed of samples performed by drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig. Because Ó Cíosóig was suffering from physical and personal problems during the album's recording, samples of various drum patterns that he was able to perform in his condition were recorded. According to Shields, "[i]t's exactly what Colm would have done, it just took longer to do." Ó Cíosóig recovered enough to play live on two of the album's songs, "Only Shallow" and "Touched", the latter of which was composed and performed entirely by the drummer. Shields believes that listeners are unable to tell the difference between Ó Cíosóig's live drumming and the drum loops aside from the tracks intended to have an obviously "sampled" sound, like the dance-oriented "Soon". The album makes extensive use of samples, with Shields stating, "Most of the samples are feedback. We learnt from guitar feedback, with lots of distortion, that you can make any instrument, any one that you can imagine".
The vocals, handled jointly by Shields and Butcher, are kept relatively low in the mix, and are for the most part highly pitched. On occasion Shields sang the higher register and Butcher the lower one. According to Shields, because the band had spent so long working on the album's vocals, he "couldn't tolerate really clear vocals, where you just hear one voice", thus "it had to be more like a sound." Butcher explained her "dreamy, sensual" style vocals, saying, "Often when we do vocals, it's 7:30 in the morning; I've usually just fallen asleep and have to be woken up to sing." To aid this effect, Shields and Ó Cíosóig even sampled Butcher's voice and reused it as instrumentation. The layered vocals on "When You Sleep" were born out of frustration with trying to get the right take. Shields commented that "The vocals sound like that because it became boring and too destructive trying to get the right vocal. So I decided to put all the vocals in. (It had been sung 12 or 13 times)." He explained:
On 'When You Sleep' it sounds like me and Bilinda singing together, but it's just me – me slowed down and me speeded up at the same time. Some songs we sang over and over until we got bored – usually between 12 and 18 times. I started sorting through the tapes and it did my head in, so I just played them all together and it was really good – like one, vaguely distinct voice.
The lyrics are deliberately obscure; Shields joked that he once considered rating various attempts to decipher the words on the band's website according to percentage of accuracy. He claims that he and Butcher "spent way more time on the lyrics than ever on the music". The words were often written in late-night eight- to ten-hour-long sessions before the pair were due to record the vocals. The pair worked diligently to ensure the lyrics were not lackluster, even though few changes actually resulted; Shields said, "There's nothing worse than bad lyrics." Nonetheless, pressed by Select's David Cavanagh to reveal just the first line of "Loomer", Butcher refused, and Shields claimed to have "absolutely no idea" what she was singing.
Following the album's low-budget release, Shields boasted, "We know more about how the record industry works than our record company half the time. We do. I'm not joking." That winter the band toured Europe, an event music critic David Cavanagh described as a "unique chapter in live music". To recreate the higher tones from Loveless, Shields employed American flautist Anna Quimby. According to a friend of the band, "She had a little skirt on, black tights...she was a little indie girl. But when she blew into the flute, it was like fucking Woodstock". NME editor Danny Kelly attended a show he described as "more like torture than entertainment, I had a half pint of lager; they hit their first note and it was so loud that it sent the glass hurtling". A U.S. spring tour followed, during which Shields and Butcher tested their audiences' ability to sustain noise played at high volumes. Critic Mark Kemp said of the American tour, "After about thirty seconds the adrenaline set in, people are screaming and shaking their fists. After a minute you wonder what's going on. After another minute it's total confusion. The noise starts hurting. The noise continues. After three minutes you begin to take deep breaths. After four minutes, a calm takes over." The tour saw My Bloody Valentine accused of criminal negligence by the music press, who took exception to the long period of extreme noise played during "You Made Me Realise", referring to it as "the holocaust". In December 2000 Mojo magazine rated the tour as the second loudest in history.
Despite being poised for a "popular breakthrough" following Loveless' critical favour, My Bloody Valentine recorded only sporadically in the two decades following the album's release—including the contribution of a cover of "We Have All the Time in the World" from the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service to a charity compilation, and a cover of the Wire song "Map Ref. 41 Degrees N 93 Degrees W" for the tribute album Whore: Tribute to Wire. Unable to finalise a third album, Shields isolated himself and, in his own words, went "crazy", drawing comparisons in the music press to the behavior of musicians such as Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. The other band members went their own ways during the period of inactivity following Loveless: Butcher contributed vocals to Collapsed Lung's 1996 single "Board Game", and two tracks ("Ballad Night" and "Casino Kisschase") from the band's 1996 album Cooler, Googe had been sighted working as a cab driver in London and formed the supergroup Snowpony in 1996, Ó Cíosóig joined Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions, while Shields collaborated with Yo La Tengo, Primal Scream and Dinosaur Jr.
Reportedly, two separate albums of new music were recorded by Shields in his home studio, but were abandoned. According to sources, one was possibly influenced by jungle music. Shields later confirmed that at least one full album of new material was abandoned. He said, "We did an album's worth of half-finished stuff, and it did just get dumped, but it was worth dumping. It was dead. It hadn't got that spirit, that life in it." He later explained, "I just stopped making records myself, and I suppose that must just seem weird to people. 'Why'd you do that?' The answer is, it wasn't as good [as Loveless]. And I always promised myself I'd never do that, put out a worse record." Shields later said to Magnet magazine, "We are 100 per cent going to make another My Bloody Valentine record unless we die or something," and attributed the band's sparse output to a lack of inspiration. A third My Bloody Valentine album, MBV, was finally released in 2013, 22 years after Loveless.
Although Shields feared a critical panning, reviews of Loveless were almost unanimously favourable. "An album without parallel," wrote Andrew Perry in Select. "Its creative inspiration defies belief. Though 'To Here Knows When' is pretty well the weirdest track of the eleven, that glorious distortion gives a fair signal of what to expect – the unexpected. Everything you hear confounds your idea of how a pop song should be played, arranged and produced." "The instrumental 'Touched' is especially startling," noted Martin Aston in Q, "like a drunken fight between a syrupy Disney soundtrack and an Eastern mantra. All in all, Loveless amounts to a virtual reinvention of the guitar."
NME awarded the album an eight out of ten score. Reviewer Dele Fadele saw My Bloody Valentine as the "blueprint" for the shoegaze genre, and wrote: "with 'Loveless' you could've expected the Irish / English partnership to succumb to self-parody or mimic The Scene That's Delighted To Eat Quiche [...] But no, 'Loveless' fires a silver-coated bullet into the future, daring all-comers to try and recreate its mixture of moods, feelings, emotion, styles and, yes, innovations." While Fadele expressed some disappointment that the group seemed to disassociate themselves from dance music and reggae basslines, he concluded "'Loveless' ups the ante, and, however decadent one might find the idea of elevating other human beings to deities, My Bloody Valentine, failings and all, deserve more than your respect." Melody Maker writer Simon Reynolds praised the album, and wrote that Loveless "[reaffirms] how unique, how peerless MBV are." He declared, "Along with Mercury Rev's 'Yerself is Steam', 'Loveless' is the outermost, innermost, uttermost rock record of 1991." Reynolds noted that his only criticism was that "while My Bloody Valentine have amplified and refined what they already were, they've failed to mutate or leap into any kind of beyond." Rolling Stone gave the album four out of five stars. In a review that also covered Chapterhouse and Creation labelmates Velvet Crush, reviewer Ira Robbins wrote, "Despite the record's intense ability to disorient—this is real do-not-adjust-your-set stuff—the effect is strangely uplifting. Loveless oozes a sonic balm that first embraces and then softly pulverizes the frantic stress of life." Spin gave Loveless a mixed review with writer Jim Greer noting that the album's songs are "standard-ish and dull" and concluded that he felt "The warped music is a cool idea and I recommend the album—but not on the basis of the singing or the songs".
While Creation were pleased with the final album, and the initial music press reviews were positive, the label soon realised that although, in the words of plugger James Kyllo, "it was such a beautiful record, and it was wonderful to have it... it just didn't sound like a record that was going to recoup all the money that had been spent on it." Alan McGee liked the record, but admitted, "It was quite clear that we couldn't bear the idea of going through that again, because there was just nothing to say that [Shields] wouldn't do exactly the same again. That's enough. Lets step back". Despite a severe shortage of money, Creation funded a short tour of the north of England late in 1991. At the time the band were making the marketing of Loveless difficult—there would be no singles, and the band's name was forbidden to appear on the record sleeve. McGee was by now exhausted and frustrated. He recalled, "I thought: I went to the wall for you. If this record bombs, I've stolen my father's money. And they were so...not understanding of anybody else's position." McGee dropped My Bloody Valentine from Creation soon after the album's release because he could not bear working with Shields again; "It was either him or me", he told The Guardian in 2004. Loveless peaked at number 24 on the UK Albums Chart, and failed to chart in the United States, where it was distributed by Sire Records. In 2003 Rolling Stone estimated the sales figures for Loveless as 225,000 copies sold.
Loveless has ranked highly on a number of critics' lists. The album ranked number fourteen in the 1991 Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics' poll. In 1999, Pitchfork Media named Loveless the best album of the 1990s. However, in their 2003 revision of the list, it moved to number two, swapping places with Radiohead's OK Computer. In 2003, the album was ranked number 219 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2004 The Observer ranked it at number 20 in its "100 Greatest British Albums" list, declaring it "the last great extreme rock album". In Spin's entry for Loveless on its list of "100 Greatest Albums 1985–2005" (where it was ranked at number 22), Chuck Klosterman wrote, "Whenever anyone uses the phrase swirling guitars, this record is why. A testament to studio production and single-minded perfectionism, Loveless has a layered, inverted thickness that makes harsh sounds soft and fragile moments vast." In 2008, Loveless topped The Irish Times' "Top 40 Irish Albums of All Time" critics' list, in 2013, it placed third in the Irish Independent's "Top 30 Irish Albums of All Time" list. and in 2014, it placed ninth on the Alternative Nation site's "Top 10 Underrated 90's Alternative Rock Albums" list. In 1999, Ned Raggett ranked the album at number 1 on his list of "The Top 136 Or So Albums Of The Nineties". In 2013, NME ranked the album at number 18 on their "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
Loveless's has influenced a wide variety of other artists. Clash called the album "the magnum opus of the shoegazing genre," stating that it "raised the bar so high that it subsequently collapsed under its own weight," leading to the dissipation of the style. Music critic Jim DeRogatis wrote that "the forward-looking sounds of this unique disc have positioned the band as one of the most influential and inspiring bands since the Velvet Underground." Authors Paul Hegarty and Martin Halliwell wrote that the album "might be so progressive that nothing else will ever match it." Instrumental band Japancakes covered the album in its entirety on Loveless (2007), replacing vocals with steel guitar and distortion with a clean sound. The whole album was also covered exclusively by Japanese artists for the tribute album, Yellow Loveless (2013).
Musician and ambient music pioneer Brian Eno has praised the album and said, regarding the song "Soon", that "[i]t set a new standard for pop. It's the vaguest music ever to have been a hit." Robert Smith of The Cure discovered Loveless after a period of almost exclusively listening to "disco, or Irish bands like the Dubliners" as a means of avoiding his contemporaries, and said, "[My Bloody Valentine] was the first band I heard who quite clearly pissed all over us, and their album Loveless is certainly one of my all-time three favourite records. It's the sound of someone [Shields] who is so driven that they're demented. And the fact that they spent so much time and money on it is so excellent." Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins told Spin, "It's rare in guitar-based music that somebody does something new [...] At the time, everybody was like, 'How the fuck are they doing this?' And, of course, it's way simpler than anybody would imagine." Trey Anastasio of jam band Phish believed that "Loveless [was] the best album recorded in the '90s", and wanted his band to cover the album in its entirety for a Halloween show. Robert Pollard of indie rock band Guided by Voices acknowledged the album as a source of inspiration, noting, "Sometimes when I want to write lyrics, I'll listen to Loveless. Because of the way the vocals are buried, you can almost listen to the songs as if they're instrumental pieces." Loveless has also been said by Jim DeRogatis to have been a considerable influence on British band Radiohead.
While being interviewed for the 2014 documentary Beautiful Noise, Alan McGee expressed no liking for the album at all, saying "People were talking about it as if it was Beethoven's 7th or 8th symphony. No. It's some guy that can't finish a record that took three years... Loveless is fucking overrated as fuck"
All tracks written by Kevin Shields, unless otherwise noted.
All personnel credits adapted from Loveless's liner notes.