Sonic Youth – The Eternal
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: June 9, 2009
The title of this record, The Eternal, more or less sums up Sonic Youth’s epic career. With a few light grungy missteps in the mid-90’s aside (the same missteps everybody with a guitar and an amplifier was making at the time), the group has continually broken new ground with release after release of captivating music that can only fittingly be described as Sonic Youthian. The band is its own genre. There’ve never been any worthy contenders, and as far as I’m concerned, there never will be*.
Having achieved the noise : melody ratio so awesomely on 2004’s brilliant Sonic Nurse and then toning down the chaos a bit for what is essentially a bunch of love songs on 2006’s Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth have shown that they can master both the poppy and the strongly anti-poppy with skill. Many fans and critics have voiced concern that the streak of brilliance may be coming to an end, simply because it has to end somewhere. But if you’re looking for the unraveling of a once great band, the answer to the fill-in-the-blank of “You know, Sonic Youth were good until _______,” then I’m afraid you’re going to have to keep waiting my friend.
The Eternal grips you immediately with “Sacred Trickster”, wisely released in advance on the group’s MySpace page. I’ve probably heard the song 100 more times than the rest of the album for that reason, so it might be unfair to champion it as the best song on the album (even though it clearly, clearly is). It’s a mess of fiery Sister era discords and Kim’s gloriously atonal singing/shouting/wishing “to be music on a tree”, etc. It really is a single that matches anything the group has ever put out.
“Anti-Orgasm” keeps up the pace with a pre-verse burst of noise, and though the alien-sounding verse and the “uh-uh-uh-uh-uh”-solo (?) first confused then annoyed me, it grew on me by the third listen and now sounds like any other clumsy-but-lovable Sonic Youth vocalizing. There’s also a “whoa-oh, yeah-eah” that perks up “Thunderclap” and a 10-minute “Diamond Sea”-esque ball of emotion in the form of closer “Massage the History”, in which Kim whispers to the hairs on the back of your neck. There’s a lot going on here that’ll take a second listen to appreciate.
While the album’s deadly opening chord and the couple of harsh songs that follow seem to have been stapled to the front in order to massage the group’s history, foreshadowing a more abrasive album that what the group actually delivers, this collection of songs sits well together when the listener realizes not to ever expect a certain sound out of Sonic Youth. They can revisit the past, but why stay there? They’ve been going for 28 years now. It speaks a lot to their character that they can keep the old ways alive, but stay planted firmly in the here and now.
So, there are plenty of new-school SY melodic moments in the vain of Rather Ripped, such as the excellent “Poison Arrow” (which is a bit like “Rats”) and “Antenna” (which is a bit like “Turquoise Boy”.) “Walking Blue” sounds like it could have come from the Dirty sessions. The point is, the group’s got about a gazillion critically acclaimed masterpieces behind them, and at this point they’re pretty much criticism-proof. I feel like they could release an album of all five group members running lawnmowers, and I would buy it. Maybe twice.
Overall, The Eternal is about as good as Rather Ripped though not quite as great as Sonic Nurse. But however you rank the Sonic Youth catalogue, if you’re a fan, this is something you’ll need to check out. If you’re not already familiar with the band, this is as good a place as any to start, though you will need to sort through the group’s history to fully understand their genius – which should take your probably a couple of years**.
Recommended If You Like:
A good mix of past Sonic Youth releases and/or Thurston Moore solo material