After more than two decades and 19 full-length releases as a band, you have to wonder if a reputation built upon musical experimentation and groundbreaking arrangements can continue to shock and amaze with each new release. In the course of their history, Sonic Youth have twice added new band members. The addition of each has allowed the group to remain forward thinking and vibrant without alienating their fanbase. The recruitment of drummer Steve Shelley to replace Bob Bert between Bad Moon Rising and Evol unshackled them of the dirge-like pacing that infested early albums, allowing Sonic Youth to pursue a much more sophisticated and melodic set of song structures. Likewise the inclusion of multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Jim O’Rourke as a full band member prior to the recording of Murray Street once again brought a renewed energy and purpose to the collective. O’Rourke’s third proper collaboration with Sonic Youth (second as a band member), Sonic Nurse, continues the new path forged on Murray Street. Instead of stepping further into the experimental abyss and embracing their early idols, DNA and Glen Branca, Sonic Youth have become introspective, delving deeper into the structures and themes sketched on albums early in their career. They have found a way to retrace their steps without sounding formulaic or redundant like so many of their peers.
Lead track “Pattern Recognition” is a clear example of this newfound introspection. The composition is remarkably similar in production and style to the songs recorded for the seminal Daydream Nation, but instead of Thurston Moore holding true as the authentic pop figurehead, wife and bandmate Kim Gordon takes over this role. Gordon repeatedly barks “you’re the one” in a variety of voices over an up-tempo din of guitars that serve as a modern response to Moore’s “Teenage Riot” from Daydream Nation. It’s unclear whether this phrase is an exultation of love, or rather a dissonant take on a Pepsi advertisement. While “Pattern Recognition” may not be as immediately catchy as “Teenage Riot”, it is no less potent. It represents the new synthesis employed by the band, simultaneously looking forward and back in a manner that is reverent to their history and invested in their future.
Thurston Moore requites the swapping of band roles on the second track, “Unmade Bed”. Thurston’s take is an anomaly for him; focused on lyrics more than musical muscle he treads on Gordon’s lyrical turf by musing on the issue of power in a sexual relationship. Once he’s said his piece he’s content to let his axe do the talking and the final two-minutes are a harmonious and blissful assault that recalls his Neil Young obsession from their Bad Moon Rising record.
Moore stays true to this lyrical path on “Dripping Dream”. The track features a mature blend of fiery feedback underpinned with a lilting and delicate melody. Here Moore falls into synch with Shelley’s precision drumming and sheds his typical sing-song vocal style in favor of a more forced and emotive one usually employed by Gordon.
A three-guitar assault combined with a throwback vocal performance by Gordon, reminiscent of the one from “My Friend Goo”, anchors the wildly titled “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream”. Underneath the seething and magnetic band interplay there lives a true and honest concern about what fame has done to the fragile psyche of starlet Mariah Carey. Not since their Ciccone Youth album has Sonic Youth so ably addressed the price and pain of stardom.
A lengthy mid-tempo intro begins the politically charged “Stones”. Lee Renaldo makes his presence felt with a wonderful series of finger picked guitar leads over Moore’s simple bar chords. The true essence of the track focuses on the foreign affairs policy of America, specifically the political claims that President George Bush has made regarding Osama Bin Laden and the future of Iraq. Moore hits the chorus with the missive, “Dead or alive/ There’s danger/ The dead are alright with me/ We’re not going to run away/ We’re not going to leave you stranger.” The sentiments expressed are some of Moore’s most political since the mid-‘80s.
“New Hampshire” is a slow burn that is certainly worth the wait. It starts simply with a repetitive tom beat by Shelley merged with a high-end guitar lead panned one way and a chugging riff slowly building in the other speaker. The dueling guitar frequencies persist throughout, only breaking briefly for an all out wah-wah freak-out in the vocal-less post chorus break. Moore returns to his previous incarnation as vocal singsong superstar weaving a broken tale about northern prep school chums adding the to the already impressive musical quality of the song.
It wouldn’t be right to call this a Sonic Youth album without a standout contribution from Lee Renaldo. The enigmatic “Paper Cup Exit” features a contorting wall of full band gymnastics bending and yielding to match the spoken word poetry issued by Renaldo. The song exists outside the framework of conventional pop songwriting with no clear chorus or verse; pop hooks appear and then dissipate as if they were mere mirages in the sonic field.
A continuation of the political theme begun on “Stones”, closer “Peace Attack” attaches itself to many of the ‘60s metaphors that were prevalent on Evol. Thurston Moore deftly offers up non-sequitors about nature, flowers, electric guitars and anti-hate as the main weapons of a “Peace Attack”. The instrumentation matches the positive lyrical tone, as guitars and rhythms are vibrant and shining and the arrangement of the song is more traditional and less improvised, a rarity for Sonic Youth.
Many bands that were peers of Sonic Youth, or were influenced to form by them, are on reunion tours this summer. With that fact in mind it is even more amazing that the group has remained consistent and vital for such a lengthy period of time. Sonic Nurse finds them embracing and sifting through the finer moments of their past over the course of 10 outstanding tracks. This self-produced effort finds the band comfortable with their place in rock history inasmuch as they are able to create such a rewarding album at this late juncture in their career. Upon first examination it would seem that the involvement of newest member Jim O’Rourke has nurtured Sonic Youth into a comfort zone, allowing them to achieve both an accessible and challenging record, thereby giving the music world exactly what they need from a prodigious and legendary group.