ABOUT | PAST ENTRIES | BEST OF 00–04 | 05 | 06 | 07 | 08 | 09 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 18 | E-MAIL | RSS | TWITTER

Sonic Youth Discographied Part 3: The State Fair Tour

Rounding out my Sonic Youth coverage after handling their 1980s albums and 1990s albums in prior posts, this entry covers their five full-lengths from the 2000s: NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped, and The Eternal.

Despite being unheathily obsessed with indie rock for the entirety of the 2000s, I come to Sonic Youth’s most recent five LPs with the least amount of background. Sure, I remember Pitchfork’s 0.0 slap in the face to NYC Ghosts & Flowers. I picked up Rather Ripped last year. I’ve heard that Murray Street, Sonic Nurse, and The Eternal are all quality records. But without singles like “Teen Age Riot,” “Kool Thing,” “100%,” “Bull in the Heather,” “The Diamond Sea,” and “Sunday” filtering into the long-gone 120 Minutes, it was particularly easy to let these records pass me by. Certainly I’m not alone here, but there’s a remarkable amount of quality material from this decade for a band in their third decade of action.

Sonic Youth's NYC Ghosts & Flowers

NYC Ghosts & Flowers – Geffen, 2000

Highlights: “Free City Rhymes,” “NYC Ghosts & Flowers”

Low Points: Everything else

Overall: As much as I try to reject the numerical scores Pitchfork brandishes in its reviews, certain ones stick. My favorite album got a 6.7, after all. They used to be more biased, more reactionary with the digits, handing out perfect scores to staff favorites like Walt Mink and 12 Rods, dropping the 0.0 bomb on figureheads like the Flaming Lips and Sonic Youth. Nowadays their foremost concern is saving face, sending potentially embarrassing scores and creative-writing-class-reject reviews out for re-education while giving virtually everything new a 7.2. (You can still track down head-shakers like Ryan Schreiber’s blackfaced John Coltrane review. Shit, cat.) The recent recipients of those pole positions have been safer bets—reissues from the Beatles, Neil Young, and Stone Roses get 10.0s, almost no 0.0s since the bomb dropped on Travistan derailed the solo career Travis Morrison of Pitchfork’s former favorites the Dismemberment Plan. Despite the recent cleansing of their archives and dulling of their pointy stick, the aforementioned 0.0 given to Sonic Youth stands. It hardly killed Sonic Youth’s career, but it did set NYC Ghosts & Flowers up as a mighty roadblock in this overview.

It might not be that daunting. The 0.0 sets NYC Ghosts & Flowers up with the most flattering case of diminished expectations in history. Even if other reviews are mixed on the record and almost no one heralds it as one of Sonic Youth’s best records, it can’t be one of the worst albums ever. Right?

Mostly right. NYC Ghosts & Flowers will test almost anyone’s patience with its Beat poetry set to mellowed-out noodling. It’s the worst Sonic Youth full-length to date. But its saving grace, if you can give it that much credit, is that it could be easily condensed down to a nice seven-inch. Put “Free City Rhymes” on the a-side, “NYC Ghosts & Flowers” on the flip, and you’ve got an involving dose of this era of Sonic Youth. “Free City Rhymes” reminds me of Storm & Stress’s Under Thunder and Flourescent Light (released five months before NYC Ghosts & Flowers), specifically its speak-sung opening track “The Sky's the Ground, the Bombs Plants, and We're the Sun, Love.” Ian Williams’ side-project from Don Caballero pulled its song structures apart until only fragments remained, sounding, for better and worse, like a splatter painting of notes and rhythms. Yet there was something remarkably placid about the gurgling “The Sky’s the Ground,” specifically how it lingered on ghosting melodies long enough for you to know the song initially had them. “Free City Rhymes” is considerably more structurally sound, but the languid vocals from Thurston Moore and gradual volume swell still feel abstracted from its original plan. (Producer Jim O’Rourke must have been the anti-Vig for NYC Ghosts.) The title track is closer in spirit to the rest of the album, given Lee Ranaldo’s poetry-reading delivery, but the minimal, echoing chimes and patient storytelling fit well with the song’s glacial crescendo into roaring noise and cymbal washes. If it had been an instrumental, it would compare favorably to contemporary post-rock songs. Put these two songs on a one-side twelve-inch with an etched flip, presumably a Mount Rushmore of their Beat heroes, and I’ll snap it up in a heartbeat.

Sadly, I’d consider dropping the 0.0 on the remaining six songs. “Renegade Princess” switches from pretense-heavy spoken word to an up-tempo chant of “Renegades fight for life,” sounding like an art-school take on West Side Story. It ends with an abstract wash of noise, one of many to come. “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)” dumbs down Kim Gordon’s usual feminist outrage to Neanderthal insights like “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider / Girls go to mars, become rock stars.” Newsflash: this was the single. (Looks like Geffen didn’t go through with it.) “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” is a Thurston Moore poetry reading dripping with beatnik over-annunciation. There’s some neat guitar noise near the end but good luck getting to it. Kim Gordon tries to make the “What’s the first thing that comes into your head when I say this word?” game into poetry in “Side2Side.” Not to be outdone, Thurston Moore one-ups her with the endlessly irritating “StreamXSonik Subway,” a poisonous dose of avant-garde storytelling set to a cringe-inducing backdrop of toy gun sounds and cartoonish, lurking rhythms. Kim Gordon curses listeners with both tuneless trumpet bleating and tiresome reports of a much-earned lighting strike. These songs are straight terrible.

NYC Ghosts & Flowers ignores the most salient fact about Sonic Youth: they are a rock and roll band. They are more creative, more experimental than most rock and roll bands, but their “official” full-length albums stick, in various degrees, to basic rock and roll norms. Filtering out their most experimental tendencies to the SYR EP series establishes a dividing line within their own discography. A post-EVOL Sonic Youth LP bears an implicit agreement that it will have the most basic element of rock and roll—songs—even if the songs themselves favor texture and noise over principle rock and roll elements like melody and rhythm. The group itself is certainly in communication with the avant-garde, cribbing notes from John Cage and Glenn Branca throughout its existence, but its primary output—think of Goo, Dirty, even Daydream Nation—are rock albums. They do not get a free pass because of their avant-garde leanings, especially not on NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Aside from “Free City Rhymes” and “NYC Ghosts & Flowers,” the combination of experimental rock and Beat homage on these songs does not hold together. It is possible that the cultural critique here is valid and timely, but without basic elements like songs working in its favor, it will fall on tone-deaf ears.

Sonic Youth's Muray Street

Murray Street – Geffen, 2002

Highlights: “Rain on Tin,” “Karen Revisited,” “Radical Adults Live Godhead Style,” “Sympathy for the Strawberry”

Low Points: “Plastic Sun”

Overall: One element that’s lost in this high-speed trip through Sonic Youth’s catalog is the time in-between albums. I can quickly depart from NYC Ghosts & Flowers and arrive at Murray Street, breathing a sigh of relief that they’re back to writing actual songs, but the two-year period in between the albums was monumental. First, NYC Ghosts producer Jim O’Rourke became an official member of the group, the first line-up change since Steve Shelley replaced Bob Bert in 1985. O’Rourke had collaborated on the generally well received SYR3: Invito Al Ĉielo, but it’s not like NYC Ghosts was a rousing success. Second, the September 11th attacks happened very close to the group’s home base in New York City, specifically their studio Echo Canyon (located on Murray Street). These songs were largely written and partially recorded by the time of the attacks, but between the title and the renewed focus, it’s worth noting the connection.

“Return to form” seems to be a mantra with these later DGC albums, since certain albums (Experimental Jet Set and NYC Ghosts & Flowers) caused fans to lose track of the band and get back on at a later date. I question both the “return” and the “form” of that statement, however, since they imply that Sonic Youth merely recall earlier blueprints on these critically approved albums. Later albums recall old elements or revive a lost balance, but don’t sound like EVOL or Sister re-dos. The difference between albums varies and the notion of continual improvement dropped out of the picture after Daydream Nation, but Sonic Youth is not simply repeating themselves. They’re tinkering with a very broad formula.

What sets Murray Street apart from its predecessors is its proximity to 1970s guitar rock, specifically laid-back classic rock. I’ve compared the group to Television a few times before, but it’s mainly been a spiritual, not a sonic connection. Murray Street has both. Wilco also comes to mind, a comparison which might seem too obvious given Jim O’Rourke’s presence. That group got a critical shot in the arm after O’Rourke mixed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and then joined as a studio-only contributor. Yet it’s not Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born that Murray Street reminds me of, it’s the dad-rocker Sky Blue Sky. Beyond sharing 1970s classic rock tempos, both groups rely on the interplay between three clean guitar parts for their extended jams. The loping boogie in “Disconnection Notice” isn’t as precisely interlocked as the outro of Wilco’s “Impossible Germany,” but the mellow, unforced jams in these songs feel related. It feels odd to pull Sonic Youth into the swirl of O’Rourke/Tweedy crossovers (Tweedy’s involvement with O’Rourke’s superb 2001 LP Insignificance, the pair’s Loose Fur LPs), but Murray Street would easily slot alongside these records for a Saturday afternoon playlist. Is this proximity to laid-back 1970s guitar rock a real surprise? After all, Sonic Youth has done mellow rock (A Thousand Leaves) and 1970s-inspired epics (Daydream Nation’s progressive overtones) before. It’s the combination that’s new.

The other striking element of Murray Street is its comparative lack of pretense, or less tactfully, bullshit. Their Geffen output has suffered from too many must-skip songs, particularly Kim Gordon’s confrontational riot grrrl punk-rockers. Murray Street is the first album since Sister that I’ve gladly listened to straight-through multiple times during this project. (Sorry Daydream Nation, I’ve got places to be.) Gordon’s “Plastic Sun,” a Moore-penned diatribe against pop icons like Britney Spears, is the lone potential irritant, but its scant 2:15 runtime and Gordon’s restrained delivery are welcome after the interminably awful “Panty Lines” and “The Ineffable Me.”

The jams remain on Murray Street, but the end results have improved considerably. According to a 2002 Nude as the News interview, five of these songs began as Thurston Moore’s acoustic solo songs, which provides a stable foundation for the restrained experimentation. Moore begins the record with “The Empty Page,” “Disconnection Notice,” and “Rain on Tin,” which each get incrementally longer with no sign of wear. “Rain on Tin” has the most inspired instrumental passage of the trio, but all three are casually addictive. Lee Ranaldo’s “Karen Koltrane” sequel, “Karen Revisited,” switches from easy-going poetic remembrance to spaced-out noise explorations at the three-minute mark of an eleven minute song, but it holds my attention until it peters out into echoes. (And I was even driving at the time!) Kim Gordon’s nine-minute closer “Sympathy for the Strawberry” is a floating take on krautrock’s insistent rhythms, recalling A Thousand Leaves’ gentle epic, “Wildflower Soul.” The title of Moore’s “Radical Adults Live Godhead Style” could slot into the Beat-friendly NYC Ghosts, but its ice-cool lyrics and sax-skronk crescendo make it the highlight of the LP. These songs find the right balance between experimentation and listenability.

Murray Street is the true beneficiary of NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ mistakes. No album-to-album transition in their catalog is marked with lower expectations, so almost anything would have been a marked improvement over the beatnik poetry readings of its predecessor, especially the sturdy, compelling songwriting found here. It’s certainly possible to go overboard with praise of this album because of that comparison, but I’m not going to slot it over EVOL, Sister, or Daydream Nation. It does, however, earn a position in the top tier of their Geffen output alongside the higher highs and lower lows of Washing Machine.

Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse

Sonic Nurse – Geffen, 2004

Highlights: “Pattern Recognition,” “Unmade Bed,” “New Hampshire,” “I Love You Golden Blue”

Low Points: “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Creme”

Overall: For the first time in my journey through their catalog, I’m torn on a Sonic Youth album. I’ve spun Sonic Nurse at least five times now and there are two very logical, rather conflicting conclusions.

First, the negative. After the disastrous NYC Ghosts & Flowers, the group has come very close to something I would have never thought possible back with the chaotic Confusion Is Sex: boredom. My fondness for Murray Street can’t cover up the obvious—it’s a classic-rock-informed album with plenty of mid-tempo jam sessions. Not the most exciting description. It even reminded me of Wilco’s dad-rock opus Sky Blue Sky, which should have been a ringing alarm for boredom. My point about Washing Machine managing to sound both comfortable and exciting resurfaces here as well. Both Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are comfortable and consistent in their songwriting and delivery, but lack the visceral excitement of their earlier records.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that Sonic Nurse is an incremental change from Murray Street. Kim Gordon’s back in a bigger role and the classic rock overtones aren’t as apparent, but as a whole, the album sounds like an extension of Murray Street. To repeat, I enjoyed Murray Street, but a big part of what’s kept me moving forward through Sonic Youth’s catalog is the anticipation of a something new. Their big missteps so far—Experimental Jet Set and NYC Ghosts & Flowers—provided that newness, even if it wasn’t on target. Sonic Nurse merely tweaks the formula. Part of me is tempted to overlook Sonic Nurse’s strengths and criticize it for not advancing their sound further, but there’s another view to consider.

The second, more positive take stems from a vital question: What expectations should I have for the fourteenth LP from a group twenty-three years into their existence? This territory is typically reserved for classic rock groups, who are expected to make subtle changes to their formula and rely on the continuing strength of their songwriting. If a classic rock artist makes a huge left turn, like Neil Young did with Trans (side note: Sonic Youth covered “Computer Age” from this LP on their Daydream Nation tour), they’re vilified (or sued!) for making unrepresentative music. See NYC Ghosts & Flowers. On the contrary, when Neil Young returned to his Crazy Horse days for Freedom and his folk-rock days for Harvest Moon, he’s heralded for returning to form. See Murray Street. Once the artist is back on the straight-and-narrow, the excitement dies away, but the critical appraisal from traditional outlets like Rolling Stone (or Pitchfork) remains. See Sonic Nurse. It’s the start of their classic (indie) rock era of expectations.

By the standards of classic indie rock, Sonic Nurse is a success. Subtle changes to the sound? Check. Consistent, representative songwriting? Check. It’s not as tightly constructed as Murray Street, nor does it have an engrossing noise passage like “Karen Revisted,” but its ten songs lack a true stinker and display some wonderful emotional range. It leads off with its two best songs, “Pattern Recognition” and “Unmade Bed.” The former finds Kim Gordon sounding cooler than anything since Goo, as her gravelly coos fit perfectly with the album’s most propulsive bass lines. Steve Shelley quietly drums up a storm; his versatility on “Pattern Recognition” is worth a few extra listens. “Unmade Bed” makes a convincing argument for replacing the old noise bridge with the new intertwined solos, since the bob and weave of the parts is both effective and concise. Thurston Moore’s resigned delivery is devastating. Helped out straightforward lyrics like “Cause now that you’re in his arms babe / You know you’re just in his way / Suckered by his fatal charm, oh girl / It's time we get away,” Moore finds subtle layers of emotion in “Unmade Bed,” something I’d never associated with the band. Of the group’s three songwriters, Moore is the most natural in this classic indie rock stage.

Past its excellent first two tracks, Sonic Nurse slides comfortably into a mid-tempo pace. Thurston Moore’s four remaining songs are likeable, if familiar. “Dripping Dream” oozes nonchalant cool, but it’s the song’s stately rebuild that’s most impressive. The classic rock pulse of “Stones” would fit nicely after “Rain on Tin” on Murray Street. The confident lead riff of “New Hampshire” segues marvelously into the delicate outro. Album closer “Peace Attack” has an easy-going temper, with more Wilco-esque intertwined solos. Gordon’s other three tracks cover both mellow, Nico-esque plateaus and her lingering punk tendencies. “Dude Ranch Nurse” and “I Love You Golden Blue” represent the former; I prefer the dream-pop whispers and longing ambience of “Golden Blue” to the mid-tempo anesthesia of “Nurse.” Representing the latter, “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Crème” is the album’s most likely annoyance, marking the return of an older, if not wiser, retching affectation from Kim Gordon. The lyrics pick up where the Britney Spears critique “Plastic Sun” left off, but the driving chorus melody and the pre-verse chiming passages make up for Gordon’s straining verse vocals. To put it in perspective, I’d listen to an album consisting solely of “Mariah Carey” before willingly hearing “Panty Lines” or “The Ineffable Me” again. Finally, Lee Ranaldo’s lone contribution, “Paper Cup Exit,” is a fine album track, but lacks the standout status of most of his songs since Goo. Sonic Nurse could really use a “Mote,” “Wish Fulfillment,” or “Hoarfrost,” too.

Whether you view Sonic Nurse as a success or a disappointment depends on how far you are to either side of the progress/classic divide. If you’re thrilled to have another consistent Sonic Youth record that you can sit through without itching to skip songs, Sonic Nurse fits the bill. Along with Murray Street, it’s one of the rare albums in their catalog which doesn’t suffer from irritable song syndrome. Yet if you’re not happy with more of the same, if you crave a stylistic shift like Bad Moon Rising to EVOL or Experimental Jet Set to Washing Machine, Sonic Nurse will leave you wanting more. If you believe that Sonic Youth should bring something distinctly new to each record, you will likely tune Sonic Nurse out.

Personally, I’m still waffling between these poles. I do appreciate being able to sit through an entire Sonic Youth album without worrying about which landmines are coming up on the next side. That concern is gone, but now there are songs that simply don’t do much for me—“Paper Cup Exit,” “Dude Ranch Nurse,” “Stones.” Being able to tune out Sonic Youth songs seems strange to me. I’m willing to grant Sonic Youth their passage into classic indie rock expectations—after all, Kim Gordon turned 50 in 2003 and Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo passed that milestone since Sonic Nurse—willing to appreciate Sonic Nurse for what it is, willing to continue onto their more recent albums, but I still want a little more.

Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped

Rather Ripped – Geffen, 2006

Highlights: “Incinerate,” “Do You Believe in Rapture,” “Jams Run Free,” “Pink Steam”

Low Points: “Sleepin’ Around,” “What a Waste”

Overall: My initial reaction to Rather Ripped, before this chronological dive into Sonic Youth’s discography, was that it felt stripped-down and tidy in relation to the other Sonic Youth records that I’d heard at the time. Certain elements felt atypical to Sonic Youth’s style: the majority of the songs are four minutes or less; the noise passages are minimal; and the hooks are clear. That impression remains, but what’s changed is how Rather Ripped fits into their catalog. It feels particularly energetic in comparison to the two Jim O’Rourke albums which preceded it. Both Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are primarily mid-tempo affairs, defined by heavily intertwined guitar tracks. Rather Ripped has clearer separation between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitar tracks, and Kim Gordon sounds more assured back in her usual role on bass. The shorter track lengths recall early 1990s albums like Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, when they trimmed the explorative passages in favor of more direct songwriting. Its chiming, buzzing guitar leads sound streamlined and minimal in contrast with their predecessors on EVOL and Sister. Rather Ripped isn’t about standing in stark contrast to what’s come before it; it’s about conversing with those records—trying alternate routes, cribbing ideas, bridging gaps between eras—and producing something that seems atypical at first, but reveals itself to be a natural component of their sound all along.

The resulting product has been called their “pop” album, which strikes me as an ironic farewell to their major label era. (Technically, the primarily instrumental b-side collection The Destroyed Room was their last Geffen album, which is considerably less ironic in this context.) Goo and Dirty in particular are conflicted with how to reconcile their artistic progression with major-label expectations, which results in some ill-fitting reaches for pop hooks or melodies kept at arm’s length. It’s not that Sonic Youth didn’t write melodic, near-pop songs (“Bull in the Heather” is a great example) during this time (or before it), but an entire album of them? A few came close—Dirty is too grunge-oriented, Murray Street and Sonic Nurse are too languid, Sister rocks too much and loves its noise passages—but the group always seemed more interested in what was going on in the periphery of their songs than the verses or choruses. Rather Ripped is song-centric, melody-centric throughout—I hesitate to call it pop, since they’re still Sonic Youth songs—and it’s strange how their natural progression to this point coalesces with Geffen’s own desires.

Rather Ripped starts off with a trio of keepers. Gordon’s “Reena” embodies the album title in its lean architecture, sending out a clear message: the jam sessions with O’Rourke are over. Gordon’s vocals and lyrics are charged and focused, especially the “You keep me coming home again” chorus. Moore follows suit with “Incinerate,” a pyromaniac love song kept lighthearted by Moore’s riff exchanges with Lee Ranaldo. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” is a lovely, mellow song jabbing back at Christian fundamentalism and President Bush, but it’s open-ended enough to remain vital in the new administration, proving they’ve gotten significantly better at protest songs since Dirty. There’s also a noise track buried in the first half of the song, one that begs for proper excavation.

The next two songs, “Sleepin’ Around” and “What a Waste,” stunk when I heard them the first time and remain stinkers. At least they’re neighbors on side A of the LP. It’s interesting to note that a bad song on Rather Ripped isn’t a shrill attack of aggro-feminism or a uncharacteristic bout of tough rock, but simply a melodic irritant.

The rest of the album regains the consistency of Murray Street and Sonic Nurse. Gordon’s “Jams Run Free” is almost too short at 3:53, baiting listeners with “We love the jams / And jams run free,” then keeping its noisy bridge anchored by Gordon’s solid bass line. Her delivery is a wiser, older version of the alluring whispers of EVOL. Ranaldo’s “Rats” feels more expansive than its 4:25, bolstered by growling background noise and breaks of acoustic guitars. His poetic storytelling is back to the “Hoarfrost” level of picturesque detail. “Let me place you in my past / With other precious toys / But if you’re ever feeling low, down / In the fractured sunshine / I'll help you feel the noise” might be the best lyrical summation of his contributions to Sonic Youth. Gordon again channels Nico on “Turquoise Boy,” more faithfully here than on “Dude Ranch Nurse” and “I Love You Golden Blue,” and the group bolsters it with a lovely harmonic cluster and a stately reemergence of the main melody after a brief noise interlude. “Lights Out” is a pleasant Moore whisper-fest that would be better without his trademarked “sing the guitar line” trick. “The Neutral” finds Gordon embracing the ordinary guy, recognizing the downfalls of all the hip archetypes and praising how “He’s neutral, yeah, he’s weary / And he’s so in love with you.” I’d never expected Gordon to champion the normal this convincingly; shouldn’t she be lusting ironically after a Jonas brother? “Pink Steam” starts with a welcome, five-minute-long instrumental of snaking guitar before a few short minutes of Moore’s sexually charged lyrics. It’s the perfect long song for Rather Ripped; even during its instrumental passage, it’s tautly chiseled. “Or” closes the album with a muted heartbeat of tour stories (involving strippers, so likely fictional), its guitar rattles and chimes echoing in the distance.

In line with the classic rock expectations that came into view with Sonic Nurse, Rather Ripped doesn’t expand or explode the Sonic Youth brand. It makes subtle changes and relies on solid songwriting. It carves out a spot within their existing discography, whether that niche is deemed their “pop album” or simply a focused set of melodic (almost) indie rock, and traces lines to many of their previous efforts. One point I’ll recant from my earlier take of Rather Ripped is a longing for their usual sprawl. There are plenty of Sonic Youth albums that have an abundance of such sprawl—Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves for starters—so if I’m in the mood for elongated noise passages, I’ll get my fix elsewhere. Rather Ripped, meanwhile, serves its purpose, a modern update of the tight Sister. Whether you need such an update depends on how much you’re onboard with those classic rock expectations, but for now at least, I’m fine with Sonic Youth filling in the gaps.

Sonic Youth's The Eternal

The Eternal – Matador, 2009

Highlights: “Sacred Trickster,” “Antenna,” “What We Know,” “Malibu Gas Station”

Low Points: “Anti-Orgasm,” “Leaky Lifeboat,” “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn”

Overall: Sonic Youth’s completion of their Geffen contract sends them back to an independent record label for the first time in two decades. There’s even a sense of familiarity to the label, since Matador co-owner/operator Gerard Cosloy recruited the band to Homestead for Bad Moon Rising thirteen albums ago. Even though Sonic Youth demonstrated little damage from major-label intrusions in the last decade (being able to release NYC Ghosts & Flowers suggests almost no oversight from Big Brother, while the last three records felt more mature on their own terms), The Eternal still celebrates its freedom from the bonds of white male David Geffen’s corporate oppression.

Joining the celebration is another Matador mainstay, once-and-future Pavement bassist Mark Ibold. The second version of the five-piece Sonic Youth seems less affected by the newcomer; unlike Jim O’Rourke, who brought his own songwriting style to the mix, Mark Ibold is a bassist, plain and simple. In addition to the Pavement/Sonic Youth relationship from the mid-1990s, Ibold was also a member of Kim Gordon’s side-project Free Kitten. This comfort level allows Sonic Youth to do what makes the most sense at this stage of their career: art-damaged punk rock!

Yes, The Eternal brings back the punk leanings of Confusion Is Sex, “Death Valley ’69,” and Dirty. Not exclusively, of course—there’s enough Rather Ripped-style rock to keep me satiated—but the reemergence of their punk side is the most notable aspect of The Eternal. To reiterate a point that became apparent during my trip through their 1990s output, I am not partial to the punk side of Sonic Youth. I prefer the strangely tuned guitar rock of their late 1980s trilogy, the epics on Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves, the measured classic rock influence on Murray Street, and the tidy rock of Rather Ripped. It makes sense that they’d return to the punk aggression—they haven’t utilized it much this decade, it’s a good fit with their independent freedom, it levels-up the melodic Rather Ripped—but it detracts from the focused songwriting of their last three albums.

The Eternal wastes no time getting into it. “Sacred Trickster” revives 1980s hardcore with a dose of vintage Gordon aggro-feminism. The group certainly sounds confident with Ibold in the pocket, tearing through “Sacred Trickster” in 2:11 with none of Gordon’s irritating vocal contortions. The first half of “Anti-Orgasm” follows suit, aping the Stooges and returning to art-school sloganeering, like the call-and-response of “Anti-war is anti-orgasm.” There goes the introspective streak of their last few albums. The second half turns into a moody instrumental, highlighted by Ibold’s nimble bass. The gang-vocal approach featured here appears on a few of the remaining songs, making the usual Moore/Gordon/Ranaldo differentiation slightly more difficult, but most songs carry the definite character of one of the songwriters.

The punk dies down for a few songs after the “Anti-Orgasm” outro. “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” manages to pay tribute to a beat poet without any actual beat poetry—proof that a merciful God is out there, perhaps—but the song floats along without its la-las catching hold. Moore’s strum-heavy “Antenna” is a mellowed-out “Sugar Kane” with backing vocals from Lee Ranaldo that runs through some squiggly guitar feedback in its extended solo/bridge. Ranaldo’s strutting “What We Know” is his hardest rocking song in ages. It’s another example of how well Ibold and Steve Shelley lock in together. I suspect Shelley’s thrilled to have a dedicated bassist in the line-up, given how Kim keeps gravitating back to guitar.

The next few songs continue with twisting the punk approach. “Calming the Snake” teases with a Krautrock rhythm and some escalating riff battles, but Gordon’s straining vocals pull me out of the song. “Poison Arrow” imagines Lou Reed fronting the Stooges. “Malibu Gas Station” threatens to revisit the danger/safety split of “Pacific Coast Highway,” but it’s mostly focused on a cultural criticism of Hollywood (see also: “Plastic Sun”). Its sneaky guitar lines and massive ending certainly stand out, however. “Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)” name-checks another influence, Darby Crash of the Germs (that band’s guitarist, Pat Smear, was name-checked in “Screaming Skull”), although its straightforward punk whoas and yeahs do the trick without the dedication. Moore’s “No Way” brings more energy and hey-heys to The Eternal, but the “sing the guitar line” trick is officially driving me nuts. Don’t worry, Thurston, it only took sixteen albums.

The final two songs end The Eternal on a curious note. First, Lee Ranaldo’s “Walkin’ Blue” is an electric/acoustic strummer—with three guitarists, it makes sense one of them would play an acoustic sooner or later—with a chorus that echoing the carefree vibes of the Grateful Dead. The extended solo/jam at the end of the song won’t disagree. Finally, Gordon’s nearly ten minute “Massage the History” sways from drifting acoustics and mumbled vocals (which still manage to miss notes) into a dense, droning build-up before closing with more mumbled vocals. Ostensibly commenting on the music industry with lines like “All the money's gone, all the money's gone / Funny, it was never here, it was never here,” “Here's a song, here's a song / To the massage the history,” and “Come with me to the other side / Not everyone makes it out alive,” “Massage the History” dramatizes Sonic Youth’s escape from Geffen, but the song’s foggy visions hardly depict sunshine on the other side.

The problem with The Eternal is that each song has great parts—Ibold’s thoroughly welcome grooves, the vintage guitar noise tangles, John Agnello’s superb production, Shelley’s ever underrated drumming, the occasional ace vocal hook—but the songwriting can’t quite hold these parts together. The result is an album I want to like more than I actually do. The Eternal is harder, more energetic, more fun than anything Sonic Youth has done since Dirty, but it gives up a lot of the songwriting gains those seven albums, particularly the last three, brought about. It’s entirely conceivable that one day a few months from now it’ll click, but right now I can’t help but repeat what I said about Goo: Sonic Youth simply didn’t bring their best material to The Eternal.

Click here to read about Sonic Youth's experimental SYR series.