In Memoriam Sonic Youth XI: “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”

Well, this is the first time that I have had to actually listen to a Sonic Youth album for one of these posts so that I could actually talk about some of the music in detail. If you’ve been reading the previous posts from this series then you’ve read about how it was around the time of A Thousand Leaves where Sonic Youth and I were going through a separation. Well, during that separation this album came out and when I finally got it I had no idea what the hell to even do with it.

My memories of this album were buying it much later, I think in about 2003 or so, because I had been listening to “Murray Street” a lot by the time I finally heard any of these songs. But other than that I don’t have any particularly vivid memories about the album. I just remember over the years trying to get into it. I remember putting it in the CD player in my car and just leaving it in there, hoping that something would jump out at me and stick, something that would give me a foothold. But, after listening and listening I just cast it aside. For some reason, and this doesn’t happen that often, or hardly ever, really, but the only parts of the album that stuck with me were the “awful” parts. I mean, they aren’t objectively awful, they are just things that make me cringe kind of. Maybe I’m cringing because I’ve practically grown up with this band and I felt like I didn’t even know them anymore; maybe I was starting to question if I should have ever really loved them in the first place. I’m not sure, but that is definitely what kept me away from this album for pretty much a decade. Until this evening, listening to it in anticipation of having to write this post and realizing that I didn’t think that I was going to have anything to say about it.

You’ve probably read the “famous” review of this album on Pitchfork. I won’t link to it, you can find it on your own if you really want to, but they gave the album a o.o rating. Now, that’s different from a 0.0, you see? It’s less. Basically they were saying that not only was this the worst Sonic Youth album, but it’s maybe one of the worst albums that they had ever heard, which I fail to believe. I also think that back then (and continuing to this day) Pitchfork survives partially on sensationalist stunts like this to help bring in people that may not normally go to their site (like their review, also famous, of that Jet album. Did they really need to do that? People don’t come to Pitchfork to read reviews of bands like Jet. Was that them simultaneously trying to show their diversity and acceptance of all forms of music, while still allowing themselves to be pretentious assholes? I think so, yes).

After listening to this album, I mean really giving it a deep and thoughtful listen so that I could write something un-biased or inflammatory for the sake of being inflammatory, I realized that it really isn’t as bad as I (or Pitchfork) previously thought it was. Considering what it is that they were doing at the time (another 2 SYR albums, nos. 4 and 5, had been released between “A Thousand Leaves” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”) and where they were in their career, I think that this was a pretty reasonable way to go. Now, of course, I can only speak for myself. I can’t imagine what anyone hearing Sonic Youth for the first time with this album would think. I can’t even imagine what someone that happened to get into Sonic Youth only since they signed to DGC, someone that hadn’t dug into their back catalog, what would they think? It’s insane to think that this came out on a major label, and not only that, it is insane to think that this came out on a major label and that that label didn’t drop them immediately afterward. Let’s be honest, this isn’t the kind of music that is really going to be getting a lot of radio play, none of these songs would be able to be used for commercials or anything like that. There is no “Bull in the Heather” on this album.

There are, however, some pretty good moments on the album. Lee’s sole track, sharing its name with the album, is definitely a highlight, and the noisiest point on the album. To be fair though, Thurston’s “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is a tough one to get through. I mean, this also isn’t the best review of the album. The most that I can muster is that this album is “ok.” But really what I’m saying is that this album really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks that it is. It’s a grower. You have to listen to it several times, maybe over the course of 14 years just periodically trying it out, in order to find things that are worth checking out.

Although, putting on “Murray Street,” one can immediately realize what it was that this album was missing after all…