It seems cliche and unfair to bring Loveless into a discussion about Isn’t Anything, and yet, it’s practically inescapable. How do you talk about an album responsible for creating a genre without discussing its far more beloved successor - an album so huge and culturally significant that it has nearly completely overshadowed its predecessor (and just about every other album in the genre, for that matter). It makes sense, too. By contrast it’s easy to write-off Isn’t Anything as growing pains: it’s raw, messy - a thick wall of noise at times, generally all-over-the-place. You know what though? Despite its alien-landscape and spontaneity, it is, at its core, a deeply human
album, expressing emotional experiences rather than impressions of the external world, twisting and mutating gorgeous melodies and vocals as it goes. It didn’t suddenly burst into existence either - for years Shields and co. had been toying with these sounds, always hinting at something with a little more substance on earlier EPs like Sunny Sundae Smile before transfiguring their sound into something more abstract and dreamy on their best EP, You Made Me Realise. It was only after that that they fully realized their sound on Isn’t Anything.
The best part is, Isn’t Anything unintentionally spawned ‘shoegaze.’ The band didn’t have a large budget (certainly nothing that comes remotely close to Loveless’), and they were pressed for time during writing/recording, but damn did they ever have a good time with it. Just pure creation for the fun of it, as opposed to trying to codify a nonexistent approach to a sound. And despite me calling it noisy and messy, there’s a surprising amount of variety on display. Songs like 'No More Sorry' are very frail, vulnerable moments in their discography - something very Dead-Can-Dance or Cocteau Twins-like on the surface, but yielding their own aesthetic identity. And then there’s the opener, Soft as Snow, a song featuring warped guitar and stop-start sections (the same can be said of other songs here) in a way that makes them subtly more emotional.
As I stated at the start of this review, it’s unfair to place this album alongside what the vast majority consider their magnum opus, but it’s contextually important to consider their differences and help see how they influenced artists for decades to come. Although the two albums sound worlds apart, if you listen closely you can tell how Isn’t Anything influenced the sounds of Loveless, but it’s far more than just a precursor to it. Don't get me wrong -that album sounds like a million bucks, all polished and textural, whereas this is very raw, gritty, their control constantly slipping away (gladly so, though, it seems). At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, It's more of a risk-taker, more in-step with reality in its lyrical themes and musical presentation. Life is messy, unpredictable, dramatic - not so unlike this album. And really, there’s nothing that sounds quite like it. In this way, the album title “Isn’t Anything” seems cleverly winking when you think about it. So for all those that haven’t heard the album that started it all, throw it on and play it loudly!