Sonic Youth: The Eternal
The last decade has been a little up and down for Sonic Youth, who are possibly one of my all time favourite bands. Murray Street and Sonic Nurse sounded like a group on auto pilot, while the free-form guitar noise on their self released SYR series of recordings has been far more daring. In fact, I’d say that until they released the stripped back and punkish Rather Ripped in 2006, Sonic Youth seemed to be channeling far more energy into the SYR series than their mainstream albums. Perhaps this had something to do with their fading ties to the Geffen record label, because The Eternal has been released on the quasi-indie Matador and they now sound refreshed, energised and unshackled.
It’s difficult to write about a Sonic Youth album without referencing any other of their 16 standard releases, which isn’t going to help anyone who might not have heard Sonic Youth before. But let me say this, if you’ve never heard a Sonic Youth record The Eternal is probably a great place to start because it encapsulates a number of stages in their career.
Sonic Youth albums have always carried their own individual identities, but The Eternal is a chameleon that conjures up qualities inherent to a number of their records. We get Dirty’s skewed take on grunge; the guitar based wig outs of Daydream Nation; the dreamy pop of Goo; the urgency of Sister; the noodling improv found on A Thousand Leaves, and the succinct energy of Rather Ripped.
Spanning such a scope, The Eternal is a dizzying rush of power pop bent into amorphous forms where guitars shift effortlessly from muted chug to tightly coiled shrieks. The addition of Mark Ibold (ex Pavement) on bass provides a bouncy and sophisticated low-end that differs in sound from the rest of Sonic Youth’s catalogue. As usual, vocal duties are shared around the band which inspires a number of moods and styles; Lee Ranaldo takes inspiration from 70’s rock on Walkin’ Blue and What we Know, while Thurston Moore pumps out garage punk numbers like Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn and No Way.
But it’s Kim Gordon’s tracks the truly standout here. On Malibu Gas Station she explores celebrity excess via lyrics like “A tough cross to bear, oops no underwear”. It opens with a wandering arpeggio and then leaps into gear like a convertible racing into the sunset, leaving a trail of blonde hair and spliffs.
Kim also stars on The Eternal’s moody closer Massage The History, which rests on an acoustic riff straight out of Thurston Moore’s Trees Outside the Academy solo record. She coos and croons along in a husky whisper that could easily curl toes, while sparsity builds into a sensuous wash of chiming guitars. It’s a dreamy number and the perfect ending to a consistently rocking album.
I’m playing The Eternal a lot right now, I think it’s fucking great. Other reviews are suggesting that it’s good but not their best. Personally, The Eternal is nudging its way into my list of favourite Sonic Youth albums. And that’s a fucking big call.