By Jason Diamond
I genuinely like every proper Sonic Youth album that has ever come out. I also am thrilled as anybody that one of the bands that had their stamp of influence all over the indie rock in the 90s are finally on an “indie” label again for the first time since the 80s (my guess is they were working within the system to destroy it). It should seem like a happy day that Thurston, Kim, Lee, Steve, and one of the dudes from Pavement are back home where they belong. But after listening to this album a few times, I wonder if it's time for Sonic Youth to pack up and start focusing exclusively on their back catalogue (or, if trying to break new ground, their SYR projects). Sixteen albums over nearly thirty years is a lot, and the band members are way past their days of being the challenging noiseniks who were doing murder love ballads with Lydia Lunch back when, well, Lydia Lunch was relevant.
Happily, age hasn't mellowed the band; it's in fact made them wiser, giving them a chance to find the sweet spot between noise and pop that they have been searching out all these years. They have finally been able to pull every bit of inspiration together and give us an album that has the dark and moody undertones of their late 80s output layered with the more mellow side that Thurston showed us on his phenomenal 2007 solo outing Trees Outside the Academy.
This means that track for track, this is as strong an album as you can hope for, and at this point, trying to break down the specific influences and meanings behind the songs these veterans write is a bit on the redundant side. But there is something that seems to be lacking at certain points, especially in the first two tracks – “Sacred Trickster” and “Anti-Orgasm” – where Kim Gordon, in all her tone-deaf glory is featured prominently as first lead singer, and then as backup to hubby Moore. Where Gordon's cool-as-fuck lyrical delivery was once the lead-in for the bands greatest statement, the song “Teen Age Riot”, and the voice singing the lyrics to their most successful single, “Kool Thing”, Gordon now sings less cooly, and more like she is bored with doing this, and frankly, it sort of kills it for me. Things finally start moving along once the band get to “Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)” which follows in their grand tradition of songs dedicated to a beat poet (the last one being “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” on A Thousand Leaves), and this one works out far better, sounding like a primer for everything that was actually good about the 90s (most of which SY had a hand in). From that song on, the band seem to find their groove.
The guitar work, as usual, is top-notch, and a few times I almost find myself thinking that maybe Thurston is hanging too much time around fellow Massachusetts residents (and another iconic guitar band from the last century) Dinosaur Jr., because parts of songs that I would have once figured to spiral out of control into a big beautiful and violent mess seem to curve into weird takes on classic rock riffage. This is nowhere as evident as on The Wipers-inspired track “No Way” towards the end of the album (while I know The Wipers are in no way a “classic rock” band, Greg Sage derived a lot of his influences from early heavy metal, and psych records), and then on the Lee Ranaldo sung track “Walkin Blue” which sounds pretty much like a Sonic Youth take on 70s AM rock, and works out surprisingly well, and suprisingly smooth. On the final song,”Massage the History”, the band employs spooky guitar effects, and hits some loud patches all over the place in this nearly ten minute jam, while Gordon comes back up to the mic, and this time – unlike the first few attempts – she sounds convincing, and is absolutely frightening with her raspy delivery singing “not everyone makes it out alive.” Of course with a lyric like that, you gotta wonder if they're trying to tell us something.
Sonic Youth as a band is twenty eight years old. I made out with my high school girlfriend to their music, I've written reviews of fiction based off their songs, and I have seen them countless times. I respect them more than just about any band I can think of and I own every studio album they have ever put out. If and when they decide to put out another album after The Eternal, I will be faithful and make it part of my collection. I'm starting to feel like a housewife, though, longing for something more than her marriage of twenty plus years that seems to be a loop of the same thing over and over again. However, I can find some comfort that at least the anniversary gift this year has cover artwork by John Fahey.