Benediction: On Thurston Moore’s 'Demolished Thoughts'
Although Demolished Thoughts was released before the announcement of the breakup of Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, it is unavoidably a document of this personal and professional transition.
Most albums require a significant amount of time to pass -- a year, five years, a decade -- before a new perspective can be reached in regards to their value and meaning after initial release. This tacit rule doesn't hold true with Thurston Moore's recent solo album Demolished Thoughts (Matador, 2011). The announcement of the marital split between Moore and Kim Gordon, both founding members of Sonic Youth, came as a surprise to many fans, given the sense of stability and definition their marriage had provided for the band. Indeed, this background sense of domesticity offset their avant-garde reputation without compromising it, giving their listeners something to relate to even if Gordon and Moore largely avoided it as a topic up for public discussion. Hence, the unexpected feeling of personal loss held by many with the swift reports that unfolded on that Friday in October. This album is unavoidably a document of this personal and professional transition.
Demolished Thoughts was released in May, and in truth, I first listened to it for free on NPR Music. This small detail says a lot about the album and the place that Moore (who is 53) has arrived at in his career. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Sonic Youth, a band established amid the No Wave scene in New York City during the early 1980s, but one which -- given its longevity and influence -- has been seen at the intersection of a number of other trends, before and since. Over countless releases for a variety of major and obscure labels, Moore (guitar), Gordon (bass, guitar), Lee Ranaldo (guitar), and Steve Shelley (drums, since 1985) prefigured and aided the mainstreaming of alternative/indie rock with recordings that tested the limits of songcraft through heavy distortion, length, and, in concert, sheer volume. Daydream Nation, their double LP from 1988, is often viewed as their masterpiece -- it's included in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress -- but their persistent output and experimentation since then has demonstrated a deeper ambition than simply receiving critical acclaim. Their work has questioned the possibilities of meaningful endurance in a genre that has typically depended on brevity in stylistic and even professional terms.
Against this backdrop, Demolished Thoughts appears like a minor occasion. Entirely acoustic with a cello often accompanying Moore's guitar and vocals, it is decidedly not a Sonic Youth album. But neither is it an MTV Unplugged version of Thurston Moore, with familiar songs receiving a simplistic stripped-down treatment. Produced by Beck, who has quickly become the go-to producer for the aging indie rock elite (Stephen Malkmus's recent release also had Beck on board), Demolished Thoughts is a transitional work, even if Moore's personal life is set aside. Reviews have connected the album to Beck's own Sea Change (2002), which also marked a musical shift paralleling the end of a relationship. But, besides his recordings with SY, there is a difference here from Moore's previous solo efforts. Psychic Hearts (1995), his first release, closely approximated his work with SY -- above all with the nearly-20-minute epic "Elegy for All the Dead Rock Stars" -- while the still-scowling Trees Outside the Academy (2007) marked a gradual shift to more (if not entirely) acoustic work accompanied by violin, as captured in its first track "Frozen Gtr". Demolished Thoughts completes this shift to a different sound, one allowing for a greater sense of warmth and intimacy than that typically found in the SY discography.
This sound unsurprisingly polarized some Sonic Youth fans. But this immediate disregard risks overlooking the personal experimentation and deep emotion found on this album -- we hear something new -- even before Moore and Gordon's separation is considered. Make no mistake: this is unambiguously a guitar-based album as with all of Moore's output, and despite the acoustic character, you can hear Moore pushing his instrument to its limits on a number of tracks. But the limits being tested are also individual. The opening track "Benediction", with its lush arrangements and allusive lyrics that conjure a relationship of inestimable experience, sets the tone for the rest of the record. Moore is still enigmatic for sure, but the horizon this album aims for is private -- a personal history is at work here -- and a number of lines evoke different dimensions of love: "Everybody knows it's true / How your love has come undone" (from "Blood Never Lies"); "Now it's an echo without refrain / You lost yr lover" (from "In Silver Rain with a Paper Key"); "All she wants is you to love her / Without shame" (from "Mina Loy"); and "Hearts get broken every day / Your undying lover is here and gone" (from "Space"). The album packaging -- graced with images of Moore by himself as a child, with SY, and in the recording studio, plus a photograph of his mother -- emphasizes this sense of nostalgia and loss.
Placed against his relationship with Gordon, these songs gain a level of sentiment unanticipated before the announcement of their split. Addressing change and even death has not been unusual for Sonic Youth -- consider "100%" and "JC" from Dirty (1992), two songs in memory of murdered friend Joe Cole -- but the terrain here is different. "Benediction" -- the title itself signaling a blessing or concluding mercy at a moment of departure -- announces this. When I first heard it, a friend and I agreed that it must be about Moore's love for Gordon, and after the news of their separation, I still believe this to be true. Its lyrics depict a breakup informed by a love still shared between two people, a love based on experience that, as suggested through the voice of Moore, will perhaps remain forever: "Whisper I love you one thousand times into his ear / Kiss his eyes and don't you cry girl / He won't disappear / But I know better than to let you go".
The future of Sonic Youth is unclear, and as relayed by Lee Ranaldo in a recent interview in Rolling Stone, the breakup of Moore and Gordon was not as sudden for insiders as it has been for others. In the album's acknowledgments, Moore thanks Kim and Coco, their daughter, first. One gets the sense that the dissolution of their marriage is filled more with empathy and anguish than acrimony. If Demolished Thoughts is indeed an epitaph to an iconic marriage and rock collaboration, it's hard to imagine a more heartfelt tribute to a relationship that helped define a musical genre for many over the past 30 years.