Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador)

June 28, 2009

sy1

I still can’t kick the progenitor.  Sonic Youth still have That Guitar Sound. Thurston is still Thurston, Lee is still Lee, Kim is still Kim, Steve is still Steve,  They’re still Sonic Youth and they never really stopped being fucking amazing.  Virtually every ‘pop’ album they’ve done is worthwhile and most go way beyond that.

This one doesn’t do an awful lot in the way of straight innovation, but does reacquaint the fans with virtually every angle of their attack, as well as providing a few tantalising echoes of their past glories.

Opener ‘Sacred Trickster’ has a full-on, Dirty-sized chorus and Kim Gordon’s signature yelp sounds as powerful as ever. The great Lee Ranaldo barks out his beat poetry on ‘What We Know’, which possesses something of the ageless ‘Eric’s Trip’.  The final death-throes of epic album-closer ‘Massage The History’ drift teasingly into a one-note, chiming picked pattern that, combined with Gordon’s hushed delivery, take you right back to ‘Shadow of a Doubt’, from Evol.

Not that the production here is anything like as weird as it was back then, in those pre-Geffen days (this is, it should be pointed out, their first post-Geffen album).  Those enormous swathes of guitar have been harnessed, rather than tamed, to serve a set of woody, natural song structures.  Sonic Youth have always had an expansive, sprawling tendency, but here, that is largely checked, with a slight majority of tracks on the record coming in at under four minutes and most tracks boasting out-and-out hooks.

The sense of drama and impending crisis that was always present in 1980s Sonic Youth is gone now, replaced by a more knowing, gentle atmosphere – it’s fair to say that they’ve mellowed since their haughty, art-rock peak, but that’s not to suggest that they are mellow, by any stretch.

Like Neil Young, even when Sonic Youth are doing something overtly accessible – e.g. the positively playful ‘Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)’ – there is a sense that violence and danger is merely being suppressed.  There could be an electrical storm around the corner.  You can see the steel in Neil Young’s eyes – you can hear grandeur and potency in even the most superficially gentle Sonic Youth guitar performance.

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

Neil Young - key influence on the Sonic Youth

SY are an instituton now, in the same way that Neil Young is – and very much in the American tradition, just like their spiritual father.  They’re spacious and evoke open country, big skies and long roads, more than they  frantic, insect modern city existence.

Thurston’s slightly goofy ‘hey hey’s on ‘No Way’ – he was always the studious kid who wanted to be a fucking cool rocker and it comes across.  You just want him to be your indulgent uncle.  On ‘Thunderclap’, he and Kim manage to get away with bratty ‘woooaaaahhs’ and ‘yeeeaaahhs’ that people their age, in theory, should not be able to get away with.

(Then again, having seen Neil Young live, I now know that anyone who says they’re ‘too old for that stuff’ was always a fucking fake anyway.  Young gave the lie to anyone who ever got lazy, gave up, got dead.)

(I should also add that the fucking cool uncle Thurston sounds like he’s had one too many on Boxing Day on the excruciating ‘Sleepin’ Around’, which I rapidly deleted from my library.  Avoid – it’s this album’s one true clunker.)

Mark Ibold appears to be a full member on bass these days and SY tip him a wink by periodically morphing into Pavement during Ranaldo’s otherwise typically gorgeous ‘Walkin’ Blue‘ – a weird development, but kind of cool.  You just wish they’d got Malkmus to help on backing vocals.  It would have worked beautifully.

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - it's not what you know....

SY's newest member, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold - Why didn't I get the gig? I guess it's not what you know...!

I tell you what, I’m gonna put together a compilation of great Lee Ranaldo songs from the back catalogue.  How’d you like that?

The raging highlight of the album is the pristine Kim Gordon showcase ‘Malibu Gas Station’, which uses that wonderful, spooked rasp of hers to perfect effect.  I think it’s got a reverse reverb on it, perhaps a delay…. Fuck the tech womblings.   Gordon huskily staccatoes as Thurston Moore’s rhythm guitar chops in his signature style, whilst a delicious Ranaldo trem arm intervention in the other speaker finds just the right accent and completely melts me.   It hearkens back just subtly to those uncanny, warped and compelling pre-Geffen albums.

At their out-and-out best, Sonic Youth create an atmosphere, or soundworld, which makes you feel nostalgic for a time and place that doesn’t exist.  Ever since Bad Moon Rising, those silvery, subtly alien guitars have pierced minds and at their commercial height, with Dirty, they took their amp power and reverence for the garage rock canon and made something simultaneously avant-garde and classic.

Since then, albums like A Thousand Leaves, Murray Street and Rather Ripped have, with differing percentages of either impulse, repeated the pattern – out-and-out noise has rubbed shoulders with the sweetest of alt-tuning melodic clouds.  Kim has alternated between that indignant rocker’s holler and a breathy, melancholy sigh.  Thurston has mixed profundity with gawkiness. Lee has just been Lee, enuncuating his closely-considered lyrics like he was reading them straight off the manuscript through a megaphone – he sometimes sounds like he’s attempting to conduct his family’s escape from an onrushing tornado.  Other times, he sounds tender, like he’s about to throw an arm around you and direct your attention to the stars above.

Back to The Eternal.  Thurston describes the band’s divorce from Geffen Records as a ‘liberation’ and it’ll be interesting to see what they do next, now they’re free of the commercial pressures of the label that once tried to sue Neil Young for making ‘unrepresentative records’.

Curse you, Sonic Youth.  Not only did Sister completely warp my musical taste, so that after a few months of listening to it and Daydream Nation, everything else sounded shit – not only that, but a decade on, you refuse to the decent thing and become futile parodies of yourselves.

sonicyouth

REM were OK with doing that.  Step aside!

Not a bit of it.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: