Sonic Youth’s tenure on Geffen Records has been a high-profile case of the intersection between art and commerce… or, perhaps more interesting, the intersection between the avant garde and rock. With Rather Ripped, the Geffen era seems to be coming to a close; it completes their contract, though the band hasn’t yet announced what is next. The nine albums Sonic Youth released on DGC/Geffen (now of course part of the mega-label Universal Music Group), as varied as they are, tell one cohesive story about a band seeking the best way to take the reckless, brave spirits of free jazz, punk, and experimental music, and generate them within the confines of traditional rock song structure.
They are an anomaly on Geffen: musicians with feet firmly in the art-gallery and basement-noise-band worlds, doing collaborations with out-jazz innovators, releasing a series of experiments through their own label SYR. But at the same time they’re not an anomaly, they’re a rock band, doing typical rock band things: touring arenas, playing on Letterman, doing interviews and photo shoots. That’s the story of Sonic Youth on Geffen — bohemian sound-pioneers influenced by contemporary artists, releasing their own version of rock music to the masses.
Rather Ripped is a graceful, elegant way to end that story. It seems to complete a circle, to contain something of everything the band has attempted over the years. In that way it resembles a tighter version of their 2004 album Sonic Nurse, which itself took the explosive, new style of arena rock displayed on 2002’s Murray Street and smoothed over its edges. In a way the career of Sonic Youth seems like a constant refining of this endeavor, like they’re continually making their music more compact, more typically “pop/rock”, while at the same time keeping it filled with mystery, surprise, freedom. At the same time it hardly seems like they’re following a straight line of progression. Rather Ripped in moments echoes the sound of albums from throughout their career (of Goo, of Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star, of A Thousand Leaves, of Evol and Sister even), even while it, like Sonic Nurse, often resembles a subtler, quieter, more refined version of the same.
Rather Ripped‘s cover art is bare-bones spray-paint graffiti, hearkening back to the punk rock fliers and taped-together fanzines of the group’s early ’80s beginnings. A few songs on the album musically reflect these times in ways — whether it’s the fairly basic lyrics of “Sleepin Around” (“sleepin’ around / what will the neighbors say”), the slighty nasty spunkiness of “What a Waste”, the shorter song lengths for most of the album, or the piercing guitar blasts that still rip through the speakers now and then.
Guitars have always held a prominent place in Sonic Youth’s music, and here it seems especially so, even though the guitars less often explode into feedback or resemble shards of noise. As on Sonic Nurse, texture is important, and the guitars are often used in service of it. Sometimes that makes for remarkable walls of sound, with guitars joining together and building to something that’s not intense and fiery, but mysterious and vibrant. The guitars float, they soothe, they soar. They do unexpected things; it often feels like Sonic Youth are taking all the instrumental tricks they’ve learned over the years and putting them in the service of building a lasting landscape of guitar sounds, one that reverberates with the sounds of the past but also feels eternally youthful.
Though as always Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon trade off the lead vocals, with Lee Ranaldo contributing one song — which, as always, is a particularly fulfilling ghost-narrative — the album is driven mostly by the words of Thurston Moore. And his Beat-style poetry is especially evocative, and especially terse — a quality that fits well with an album that musically seems to be doing much the same, communicating a lot with a little.
There’s a palpable sense of yearning in the lyrics of songs like “Turquoise Boy” and “Pink Steam”, while nothing is spelled out simply. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” evokes the born-again Christians in political office, holding the power to wage war, but in the vaguest of terms, while Moore’s vocals are particularly tender and expressive. There are lines throughout the album that stand out for how provocative yet ambiguous they are, like this one from “Lights Out”: “He rolls his eyes at the thought of paradise / but when he makes that insect sound / then it’s time girl for you to leave town.”
And then there’s songs like the album-ending “Or”, which seems to be about many things at once. It starts with strip-club imagery disturbing in tone (“in your mouth a wad of cash”) and ends up inside of a fanzine-style interview with a rock band, leaving us with the question, “what comes first / the music or the words?” It’s one of those innocuous first-time interviewer questions, in the song coming after similar ones like “how long’s the tour?”, yet on the page it reads like a puzzle and philosophical question as well. Ending with it, within an especially haunting ghost-like crawl of a song, somehow brings the Sonic Youth circle to a close while leaving it entirely open. It’s an appropriate way to end one era of a band that in certain ways has always resembled a question mark.