They finally got it right. Sonic Youth’s movie-scoring skills have been commissioned for a fourth time, in service of Fabrice Gobert’s Simon Werner a Disparu, which is, predictably enough, about missing teenagers in a bucolic French suburb. The first three — for Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, Ken Friedman’s Made In U.S.A., and Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover — distilled what incidental music they could from their trademark art-rock squall, producing pretty much exactly what they were hired to make: dystopian mood music. Having seen only the Friedman, which was lousy, I can’t say much about how it functioned on film. On disc, though, it only barely functioned as product, existing mainly for completists and the hapless neophytes preyed upon by major label cynicism. The Simon Werner a Disparu OST, however, is somewhat of a game-changer, working remarkably well out of context (which is the only way North Americans can experience it at the time of this writing). The sustained coherence of its noirish melodicism makes a rare case for the soundtrack as a stand-alone artistic statement.
That it does so by departing from the standard commercial concessions of these things — namely, front-loading with viable singles – probably explains the choice to release it as an entry in the band’s SYR series, of which it is the ninth. For the uninitiated: SYR, or Sonic Youth Recordings, has been the outlet for Thurston Moore and company’s more experimental impulses for about a decade and a half now, pressing to plastic from an office in Hoboken their collaborations with noiseniks like Merzbow and Jim O’Rourke, live sound art, and plain old artsy-fartsy noodling in coyly esoteric packaging (the running gag being that each is printed in a different language). Entirely instrumental and organized around themes, not songs, Simon Werner is digressive enough from SY’s day job to fit in with these misfits.
Aesthetically, though, it bears them little resemblance. Lacking their often improvised, deceptively disorderly opacity, it might be the first SYR that doesn’t require rhetorical back flips for critics to redeem and that much is clear once the opening salvo of echo-chamber ambiance welcomes a cymbal-tap line and actually builds to something. Not that it’s not noisy. But its guitars are more Tom Verlaine than Caspar Brötzmann, and its din is more evenly distributed, providing contrast to passages of bittersweet, disarming beauty where it was staid and difficult on Andre Sider Af Sonic Youth and Ted Hughes J’accuse (SYR8 and SYR7, respectively).
Undoubtedly, this mood-setting contrast of dissonance and grace requires some restraint to meet what that crucial exigency of narrative film music: the capacity to ease, rather than dominate, the sensory experience of spectatorship. Simon Werner’s attempt at restraint is having no vocals. None. As a result, gone also is a contrast so central to Sonic Youth’s battle-wounded style: that which is between their guitar-driven volatility, and their heavy-handed lyrics. The hyper-legibility of Moore’s nihilism and Kim Gordon’s feminist rage seems on its own the fraudulent sloganeering of pretentious punks. To the Youth’s detractors, that’s exactly what it is. But their rock ‘n roll is no laughing matter. Combined, these rudiments keep the band somewhere between deceit and candor — somewhere with a view of genuine inner turmoil, perhaps; somewhere, in any case, that is very distinctly them.
Ergo, subtracting the vocals equals slightly less than Sonic Youth. Simon Werner is somewhere closer to those criminally neglected Earth albums from the ’90s (especially “Dans les bois / M. Rabier”) — simple riffs, at times mammoth, never dumb, always on the verge of combustion. It’s high drama in alt-rock shorthand. In that way, it’s also not too far from post-rock, a genre loosely defined by its fondness for atmospheric suggestion — particularly Friends of Dean Martinez and Dirty Three, with their dusty desert soundscapes; and Tortoise circa TNT, which played like implied short-form crime fiction. If I have to draw a likeness from the SY oeuvre, it would have to be the less song-oriented pre-EVOL records, particularly Bad Moon Rising, which always seemed to sound to me like — well, a soundtrack.
But make no mistake: slightly less than Sonic Youth is still a lot, and still basically Sonic Youth. Having just completed their third decade, these art-damaged New Yorkers are only getting better, and if you’ve heard differently, then you’ve heard wrong. The tension and release, the dread, the rage, the ringing, squealing, dirty guitars, the inimitable transition from melody to anti-melody and back again — it’s all there and as gripping as it’s ever been. If the presence of actual songs is missed, the motifs in their place are hard to beat — and the closing, 13-minute epic in which they culminate ties of their loose knots with the kind of elegance I can’t remember on a soundtrack since Air’s for The Virgin Suicides (albeit with harder rocking, of course). That it’s so accessible is a testament to their range. That it’ll likely get lost in the annals of strictly-for-fans, consequent of its indie release, the film’s stateside obscurity, and a lukewarm reception from the rock-crit community (so far), is a shame.
Youth fans, you know what to do. And even in the off-chance you don’t like SYR9, at least you know your money is going to the right place.