Sonic Youth has been my favorite band since I first heard Dirty in the summer of 1993. I was immediately attracted to what I thought was a very much “anything goes” mentality. The music was (and remains, to a certain extent) brash, noisy, and full of surprises. From one release to the next they may completely change their sound or they may remain writing in the same manner for several albums in a row.
For several years, after “Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star” and “Washing Machine” I lost track of my beloved Sonic Youth. I had purchased “A Thousand Leaves” and never really connected with it. They went on to release “New York City Ghosts and Flowers” and I felt further separated from my beloved Sonic Youth. Thankfully for my birthday one year my brother bought me a copy of “Murray Street” and I got my band back again. Gone were the ultra-hip completely high-brow concepts that I could not grasp at all, and Sonic Youth was back to doing what they do best.
“Murray Street”, “Sonic Nurse” and “Rather Ripped” were truly a return to form. But this was a leaner Sonic Youth. They were stripped down somewhat of some of the long form experiments. It became clear that Thurston, Lee, Kim and Steve wanted to get back to writing quick, punk influenced jams that were still rich in catchy melodies but still contained a balance with noisy, improvisational stretches that many of their early releases were full of. Sonic Youth has reached a balance. After well over a dozen releases they were still evolving and developing into a band that is quite capable of rocking while still holding fast to their core Downtown New York City experimental values.
“The Eternal”, which will be released officially on June 9, is quite a diverse offering. Twelve tracks, across 2 albums (Sonic Youth should always be listened to on vinyl, in my humble opinion. As much as possible anyway). The hooks are a little more jagged here than they were on their last release “Rather Ripped”. The melodies are a little less pretty, but the songs are a bit more straightforward, and edgy. They sound younger on this album, more revolutionary, more punk than arty. There are still a couple of songs on this album that stretch beyond the 6 minute mark (3 to be exact, one of which is over 9 minutes).
They don’t tend towards noise as much as they would on “Evol” or “Sister” (or even parts of “Daydream Nation” like the song “Eric’s Trip”). Instead the longer songs have large sections that are loud, and noisy, but not so much in the realm of getting lost in distortion as they are contemplating sounds through repetition or focusing on a repeated gesture. Dare I say that elements of shoegaze are present at this stage in the game. Songs like “Anti-Orgasm” feature a duet of Thurston and Kim, with a super angry palm-muted crunch. The song then spins out of control into an extended quiet jam that is, like I mentioned before, more contemplative than just noise for the sake of noise. Though, there is never anything wrong with noise for the sake of noise.The Thurston/Kim collaboration continues on tracks “Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)”.
“Antenna” begins with a very straight ahead verse but builds up to a very ethereal, and damn catch chorus. Well, it is not so much a chorus as it is just a hook with Thurston singing “Far away” in his falsetto with an echoed guitar doubling him while the rest of the band seems to disappear into the background. It’s one of those magical moments that can only they seem to be able to achieve. Maybe it is because there is only one chord that is hammered on for about a minute before anything else in the song changes, and when that change finally comes it feels like you are being simultaneously lifted off of the ground while a 10 ton weight is being lifted from your shoulders.
Throughout the album there is a higher degree of continuity between songs. The style of each of the 3 songwriters (Lee, Kim and Thurston) seem to have congealed significantly more over the past few years than on previous releases. All around this is a solid effort, and it continues along in the way the band conducts their business as producing “poppy-er” albums (as much as Sonic Youth can produce anything even remotely “poppy”) for the label they work for (currently Matador, formerly DGC) and leaving their most experimental indulgences for release on their own SYR label. I think that they have managed to find an outlet for all of the things that they want to say, do and explore through each of these avenues. This, of course, does not even mention all of the collaborations they each go off and do, as well as other art that they each produce, Kim as a clothing designer, Thurston has written books, and worked with several other artists around the world including Merzbow, Wolf Eyes and Yoko Ono.
I truly hope that Sonic Youth continues to create well into the next 10 or 20 years. They have already influenced countless others, and are one of the only bands that I can think of that actually have something intelligent and different to say. There is no other group quite like Sonic Youth. This album is another one for the collection. Reviewing Sonic Youth albums just seems like an exercise in futility. There are pretty much just maniacal fans, like me, that are going to buy the album anyway and love it. Perhaps we will love it more than another of their albums, perhaps less, but we are still going to buy it. I don’t think that Sonic Youth is going to get a rush of new fans running out to get this album, but maybe I will be proven wrong. They already have at least one legendary album to their credit, and although I don’t think this will be another one of them, if they keep up with this trajectory, another one is not far off.