Michael Azerrad claims, ”Few American bands were asking to be taken seriously as art, but Sonic Youth did.”
Pandering to Sonic Youth on a blog dedicated to pop art and history and rock is about as cliché as any writer could perform. However, I also know writing about Sonic Youth is necessary because so few bands want to be taken seriously as art. The history of pop music is populated by people who just want to be musicians or in a band or, in some cases, a rock star. Sonic Youth wanted to be art! Their earnest beliefs during the early part of their career would fail an ordinary band. Pop/rock acts looking to become more than their worth usually burn out from the strain of having to meet such lofty self-expectations and, for the majority of their career, Sonic Youth has teetered between complete brilliance and sudden extinction.
But here they are; a 16th studio album Eternal due out in June, their last two studio albums, Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse displayed their relevancy, and the re-release of three of their mainstay and eponymous albums, 1982’s self-titled release Sonic Youth, 1988’sDaydream Nation, and 1990’s Goo brought many fans back to their fold. Then, Sonic Youth’s complete performance of Daydream Nation at 2008’s Pitchfork Festival made them an urgent expression. Many bands dry up, but Sonic Youth inspires imagination and creation.
When Neil Young released his 1991 “live” album Arc, it was a direct tribute to Young’s conversations with Thurston Moore. An inspired CD of mixed feedback loops from Young’s concerts with Crazy Horse or the band’s inspiration in the development of Wilco from alt-country heart throbs to feedback frenzied creators of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sonic Youth is there as a nod to those who want to be more than a band, but art.
Most agree that two of the three most essential Sonic Youth albums are Daydream Nation and Goo. I don’t think these two could be argued against. Daydream Nation found the band exercising their vision in a non-stop attack on conventional sound and criticism of the age’s anti-culture and ignorance. Goo set into motion how the band could infuse their musical energy into tight three-five-minute sound bites that featured a growing sense of melody and an understanding of pop song mechanics. Goo is as important for the reasons that are not true in Daydream Nation; Goo is playful in the ironies of the modern world whereas Daydream is a bombastic soundscape of criticism and anger. Both are truly brilliant because they attempt to make sonic art.
However, after Daydream Nation and Goo, the band fell on tough times and the sweet taste of success clouded many musical adventures. The album Dirty although remarkable in its production value, fell short and subsequent albums of the 90s showed a band trying to recapture an energy many long time fans thought was a thing of the past, but the 2004 release of Sonic Nurse brought the band back from the depths. The release of Sonic Nurse demonstrated a band that still held musical relevance, but in its wake were the childish angers of the ‘90s and a band fully accepting of its age and maturity as song writers. Sonic Nurse revitalized a band left, by many, for dead.
Gone was the ironic and uninspired tinge of the Washing Machine album and replaced by a band hell bent on recapturing the artistic song crafting that had been a staple of Daydream, Goo and the like. Sonic Nurse begins with “Pattern Recognition” a nod to the William Gibson novel and a strong hint that the days of old were back for the band. William Gibson was highly utilized in Daydream Nation; his writing influential for many of that album’s work. The highly critical look outward to a world full of patterns; “I won’t show you,/
Close your eyes and feel the fun/ Pattern recognition’s on the run.” Sonic Youth is best when their critical eye is guided outward, but where there is demonstrated restraint sonically and lyrically. The sonic depth that makes Sonic Youth so brilliant is a sound that doesn’t overindulge in volume, but in the notable attempt to ebb and flow over sound.
Songs like “Dripping Dream” with its opening layers of guitar and Kim Gordon bass line, followed Steve Shelley’s steady drumming are subtle and evenly mixed. A track like “Stones” with its minute of rhythmic, Sonic Youth-esque guitar staccato and slow build to the final 1:30 of what may be the best riff in the entire career of the band demonstrates the band’s realization that Sonic Youth finally recovered its sonic mojo again after years of trying to hang on to ancient and angry tropes from the overused Grunge phenomenon. They understand what made Sonic Youth was not necessarily their desperate anger (although this is still a part of it), but they can layer a song like no other band.
When Kim Gordon whispers in the track “I Love You Golden Blue” I am reminded that Sonic Youth is in the art game. The gentle guitar and subtle but even groove of Gordon’s bass and Shelly’s percussion remind me that Sonic Youth has also grown. The band is too smart, too creative, and too good to go away for too long. I am eager for Essential because every time Sonic Youth goes away I want to whisper the line from “I Love You Golden Blue” with Kim Gordon, “I still miss you.”