Review Summary: An overlooked gem that changed the shape of rock and noise
To me, this record is just fascinating as My Bloody Valentine's legendary 1991 magnum opus, Loveless. Released in 1988, Isn't Anything gives me about a million things to talk about. While you can hear the roots of the so-called "shoegaze" sound in noisy efforts throughout the 80's, this is where it all officially starts. This is the album that about a million bands (most crap, some great) ripped off. I would argue that its influence overshadows that of Loveless. One major reason, among others, is that Isn't Anything provides a vision of a band that is human, making human music on earth, while Loveless seems like more of an object that just materialized from another world. In some ways, this makes Isn't Anything more rewarding. You know, for us humans.
You can hear Kevin Shield's obsession with the mechanics of sound even in the way he constructs an album. As you progress through Isn't Anything, it almost feels like an ever-changing wave, rolling up and down, harmony and disharmony. An almost mechanical snare beat, coupled with a quasi-funky bassline, introduces "Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)", and from the outset, we hear that something is a little odd. It's those flourishes of off-putting guitar. The next track, "Lose My Breath," is a bit of a slow pop beauty, but the melody has to be dug out from below cavernous reverberations. "Cupid Come" picks up the pace a little bit, and that's when the mind-bending begins. The track ends with an explosion of noise and fades right into the terrifying "No More Sorry," which shifts dramatically between out of a barrage of syncopated drum rolls and fuzz and deafeningly powerful silences. And if you were lost in the wonder then, just wait for what comes next.
When "All I Need" hits, the only thing keeping everything from falling apart is the consistent one-two punch of the drums, which themselves almost get lost in the haze. Four minutes of earth-shaking madness pass, and you're sent roaring back to reality with "Feed Me With Your Kiss". Unfortunately you're in the middle of a hurricane. Shoegaze as a whole is chock full of innuendo, but nowhere does it get quite this blatant, and feral, exaggerated by the Thurston Moore/Kim Gordon type girl-boy dynamic. This could have been a track from Daydream Nation, which came out the same year.
As the album progresses, the battle between sweetness and noise becomes more and more pronounces and ferocious, particularly on the wonderful "You Never Should", where Colm O Clois' drums for the first time begin to lose control themselves, only to fall back into one of the tightest beats on the album. "Sueisfine" is a creepy punker that comes almost to the point of actually having a message (gasp!), and "I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It)" feels like a tribute (not to mention a worthy one) to the Velvet Underground circa their 3rd album.
Overall, Isn't Anything succeeds where many of its followers fail in never dragging or slowing down enough to lose our interest. That being said, without the overwhelming beauty and groundbreaking sound design of Loveless, its harder to ignore that very late 80's-early 90's feeling of, well, I don't want to say navel-gazing... let's go with self-indulgence. But really, this is a great record. Must listen.