It’s strange that when Sonic Youth went on an “indefinite hiatus” sometime near the end of 2011, no one seemed too interested in reappraising The Eternal, even though it may end up being their last album ever. Listening to it with fresh ears after its 2009 release, one gets the impression of a band going through a midlife crisis. After settling into a groove in the early 2000s with Murray Street, it seemed like The Eternal was a self-conscious attempt by Sonic Youth to start rocking again. We never got a chance to hear if it was just a one-off phase or a new musical direction for Sonic Youth as a whole, but Thurston Moore seems to want to claim the mantle of rock for himself. Everything about his new band Chelsea Light Moving so far, from the band’s announcement and mission statement to “blow up” birthday parties and bat mitzvahs to the primal songs on their debut album implies that Moore—now freed from the shackles of being in an “art” band—just wants to rock.
In some of his last interviews as a member of Sonic Youth, Moore talked frequently of his new-found love for black metal (even if he did describe the genre as something you’re supposed to endure more than actually enjoy), and Chelsea Light Moving showcases probably the first instance of Moore pursuing a musical aesthetic somewhat close to black metal. Granted, this mostly amounts to Moore and guitarist Keith Wood using lots of overdrive to create a pummeling wall of distortion, but even this is a shot out of left-field for Moore. Whereas he used to use distortion and feedback to dislodge the listener from a comfort zone, the distorted guitars here are only used to enhance the rocking. Taken with the various nods to ‘80s hardcore (“Lip” and “Communist Eyes”), Chelsea Light Moving can easily be seen as an attempt to return to youth via the paring down of Moore’s musical vocabulary.
This is still Thurston Moore, though. He’s been playing music too long to write songs that are purely boneheaded and simple. As such, we’re treated to songs like the excellent “Burroughs”, the feedback-laden “Sleeping Where I Fall”, and the unnerving “Empires of Time”. Even the simpler songs on the album aren’t so simple that they become sloppy and amateurish. Even with his brain-dead lyrics, “Lip” crackles with an energy that few bands calling themselves “punk rock” will ever hope to achieve. Moore’s been around too long and knows these genres too well to fuck this up. Professionalism may not be what Chelsea Light Moving aspire to, but they’re a better band for it nonetheless.
Ultimately, there will be those disappointed with this record simply because the name on the cover is something other than Sonic Youth. It’s a shame, because on Chelsea Light Moving, Moore strives to craft songs that are as far removed from Sonic Youth as possible. There are certain elements present in Chelsea Light Moving that will inevitably remind people of Moore’s old band: for some, the references to Burroughs and punk icon Darby Crash will merely ring as more tragic hero worship from Moore. Even so, everything on Chelsea Light Moving that seems like a callback is really just another element of Moore’s style. This is Thurston Moore. The same artist people have loved for decades, just under a different guise. When an artist as uniquely talented as Moore makes something for us to hear, it’s worth taking time out to give it a listen.