Sonic Youth: The Eternal

[7 June 2009]

By Zach Schonfeld

Three, truly, is a magic number. When I look back on Sonic Youth’s extensive catalogue, spanning nearly three decades—and about as many indie generations—at this point, I see a penchant for trilogy. If Sonic Youth, Confusion is Sex, and Bad Moon Rising sum up the early years, then what followed—Evol, Sister, and Daydream Nation—is clearly the holy trinity: dense, sprawling unions of noise and art that remain essential not only for the movements they defined but for the influence still potent today. And if those three are united in excellence, then the early `90s output—Goo, Dirty, and Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star—stands for polarization, a short-lived grunge flirtation that betrayed as many fans as it gained.

And then there was Geffen.

I shudder to use a term like ‘mature’ in reference to these last three Youth records, for their contemporary leanings signal to me far more a creative rebirth than stagnation. Clean guitars and bright melodies fit neatly—but still uncompromisingly—within the band’s famously gnarled vision, even on songs as unapologetically poppy as “Unmade Bed” or “Incinerate”. Not only are they poppy, but also refreshingly complete in terms of writing: the band had entered a phase of heavy rehearsing and self-editing from which something like A Thousand Leaves could undoubtedly have benefited.

It was not to last. “With Rather Ripped, the Geffen era seems to be coming to a close,” PopMatters’ Dave Heaton smartly observed in his 2006 review—but it’s a “graceful, elegant way to end that story”. He was right.

Appropriately, there is nothing graceful or elegant about the jagged chordal stabs that open The Eternal. From that, immediately, springs “Sacred Trickster”, a brief, punkish explosion from Kim Gordon, barely over two minutes. She engaged her twisted noise fantasies on Murray Street and Sonic Nurse, too—“Plastic Sun” and “Kim Gordon & the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” respectively—but here, it’s the first track, easily the sassiest SY opener since Dirty’s “100%”. Here, as on that album, fiery noise tributes are not so much the exception as the rule.

If I speak of The Eternal as a departure, there is a literal component, too: the band’s flight from corporate Geffen to underground staple Matador, marking a “celebration of newfound freedom”. With the shift in label came new recording habits: writing two or three songs one weekend, recording them the next, lather, rinse, repeat. By track two—“Anti-Orgasm”, a reckless, seething tribute to `60s Berlin activist Uschi Obermaier—it’s clear the tactic produced some of band’s most visceral work in well over a decade. The song is all riff, groove, teeth-gnashing and grunting, highlighted by blazing Moore/Ranaldo interplay and a dark call-and-response chorus between Gordon and Moore: “Liberation! / Not your sex slave! / Domination! / Will you behave!” Yes, it’s bizarre. And yes, it somehow works.

Still, I favor “No Way”, a fantastic Moore contribution that seems to marry this record’s driving rock foundation to Rather Ripped’s vivid melodicism. “Sweet temptation came today / Time for angels to kneel and pray,” he sings in a vocal line so catchy it fully warrants its note-for-note double in a Deerhoof-style lead guitar.

Elsewhere, the guitarist pays tribute on “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” to the late Beat poet, whose poetic attention to the subconscious Moore’s surrealist lyrics throughout the album recall, comparing love to a “poison arrow” one moment, recounting a confrontation with the devil in another. On punkish `60s rocker “Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)”, the imagery takes place on Hollywood Boulevard (“Elastic dreams of vicious actions / Plastic stomachs wrapped in steel”), buoyed by a hilarious “Whoah! Whoah!” chorus.

But if the album’s opening one-two punch calls to mind Dirty, then so, too, does Kim Gordon’s refusal to play a supporting role throughout. “Calming the Snake” is her brassiest indulgence here, and perhaps the one clear throwaway: a typical stream-of-consciousness Gordon romp that, like “Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spits”, “Panty Lies”, and “Kim Gordon & the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” before it, lacks the melodic drive to redeem its irritating vocal gymnastics. “Malibu Gas Station”, thankfully, fares far better, her vocal performance uncharacteristically restrained—and melodic! hummable, even!—atop a quasi-surf rock sort of groove. The band describes the song as “an ode to the flash moment of the camera as you knowingly step from your SUV sans panties”, with a climax that finds the bassist’s moans of “What’s yours is mind!” and “In the undertow!” set almost challengingly against the guitarists’ dueling fretboard assaults.

Appropriately, it’s Gordon whose “Massage the History”, a quietly menacing manifesto, closes off the record, endlessly expanding, contracting, building. Its indulgent length—just shy of the ten-minute mark—reflects The Eternal’s most glaring weakness: a lengthy running time that undermines its focus on careening, punkish abandon over measured songwriting. That’s what keeps it from scaling the heights of Murray Street or Rather Ripped; that’s what buries passable midtempo tracks like “Antenna” and Lee Ranaldo’s “Walkin Blue” in debris. And that’s what strips “Massage the History” of the urgency its fade-out—a throaty refrain of “Come along with me to the other side / Not everyone makes it out alive!”—could have contained. It’s not quite “Eliminator Jr.”, but it will do.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/94608-sonic-youth-the-eternal/