Sonic Youth - The Eternal
Miss Fliss 06/07/2009
Along with Fugazi, Sonic Youth are an ideal band to find jagged, anti-formulaic worth in as a teenager. When you're first exposed to alternative music, you want to hear all extremes, including discord, and you want to rebel and revel in anti-pop. Grindings, twisted tunings, shredded fingers, loud loud loud. Ferocious, feral; a chaotic battle, and craaawwwwkkk! there goes the malevolent feedback attack. There was all that in Sonic Youth, but moreover, what appeased me was there were songs shot through with melodic ring. And Kim Gordon's voice was syrupy gravel; sensual, sexy, and forceful with it. I may have been guilty of sometimes glossing over the sonic impurities, the intentional glitches, coruscating scrapings, atonal arrangements in acknowledging the bursts of surefire tune - often vocal as well as guitar-based. So, their best moments for me were their leanings towards a kind of dangerous pop. In summation, this included most of Dirty (a way, way better album than the ubiquitously iconic Goo) and your stock favourites - Teen Age Riot, Silver Rocket, Dirty Boots, Tunic - and stuff like the glorious ethereal cadence of Brave Men Run (In my Family), and Bull in the Heather.
Now, I'm not 16 anymore and I haven't paid fanatical attention to Sonic Youth since about 2003 when my interest waned. And I was jaded senseless at Sonic Youth's 2005 set at the 'my-music-taste-is-so-obscure-and-tuneless-that-I-feel-subversive-and-smug jamboree that is ATP (thinking that feedback equals the height of original music is neither big nor clever).
Dusting off my old SY collection, and receiving the new opus with a clean slate, it's time for me to consider where I stand on SY in 2009.
The Eternal starts off grunty and grinding which doesn't bode well. It's only by the seventh track that I feel comfortable and come across those special emotive chord-cruises that SY so used to perfect and please me with. The trouble is, these moments are fleeting and rare, there's an abundant feedback howl and dark dirty dirge hanging over things, and not in a good way (it can sound good). This is almost self-parody territory with lots of the old 90s trademarks, and no distinct flicker of the bright glory of transcendence, let alone new sounding chords (even given Thurston's penchant for inventing chords, they still sound in samey mode to me). I'm sure it's what a barrage of SY fans crave, repetition of that Dirty old sound, and I'll get shot for daring to even point at the SY shrine, let alone question it on this album's merit. But, come on, where are the tunes? Even the discordant evil ones? Hints and shimmers aren't enough, for me, anyway. After three tracks, we hit a same-pace drive which is a notch above middling. I'm waiting for some kind of crunch or breakthrough, or at least a break in the swell of same-sound.
When closing track, Massage the History, creeps up, I'm impressed by the acoustic guitar break with Kim in breathy monologue mode, although this ends in a simper, repeat listens reveal it to be unassumingly fantastic. Only What we Know with its 20th Century Boy grinding refrain, has solid weight to it. Songs start off promisingly (the disco/electro rhythm of Anti Orgasm, the bass/drum bombast of Calming the Snake), but lose their way in the thick of their body. All in all, that SY sound is wearing thin - the rolling pound of drums, the pauses before cybals hiss, the pedals/feedback, the guitar thrumming and darting around unpredictably (that's become predictable).
Massage the History is the singular symbol of progression. The sinister ring of guitar howl reminds me of Coldplay's Spies. This song could be the album's saving grace, great epic acoustic-now-spiky-now-slowing-to-a-simmer of a montage that it is.
In conclusion, Sonic Youth are not infallible, and this album is neither genius nor disaster. It's just got an aching lack to it, combined with a standardised air.