Sonic Youth: The Destroyed Room

Sonic Youth
The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities

Important to Sonic Youth is the modern-day equivalent to the underground/experimental rock scene they grew from. Yesterday’s Theoretical Girls and Swans leads to today’s Hair Police, today’s Wolf Eyes, tomorrow’s who-knows (Thurston knows, and has his eye on them for a release on Ecstatic Peace). Sonic Youth seem intent on keeping in spiritual touch with that stream of youthful creative energy, as well as the world of cutting-edge art in general, even while being “rock stars” releasing albums for a major corporation. Even going back to the band’s start they’ve had twin pop culture/underground interests, and an obsession with larger-than-life figures both countercultural and completely mainstream. Their song title “Total Trash” could easily denote both — the outcasts and the pop stars (see Madonna, Britney Spears, etc.). They’re walking a line of their own, not between any misperceived divide, but among several concurrent, but quite different, sides of the art/popular culture continuum.

Think of the basic Sonic Youth sound, even underneath their most direct pop/rock singles (“Dirty Boots”, “100%”, much of their 2006 album Rather Ripped), and it’s sheets of guitar, played in an evocative way, using noise as a graceful wall that’s both a challenge and a force of beauty. The element that carries through all the songs, wild and quiet, “pop” and experimental, is not those moments when they’re wailing on their instruments but when they take that same energy and smooth it into a super-charged dream-state. This is the invisible energy field tying together those disparate worlds (“rock songs” and Goodbye 20th Century, arena stages and art galleries, The Carpenters and Nautical Almanac), and coursing through their discography.

That background-generator sound is called to the front of the stage here, on The Destroyed Room. The album opens with this in its purest form: an edgy/pretty instrumental titled “Fire Engine Dream” which rides one sound for an exhilarating 10 minutes. It’s placed upfront so the band can, as they write in the liner notes, “see who’s here and who’s not.” It’s a tone-setter, then, outlining the route the band is taking throughout this 76-minute CD. That route is to explore the side of the band interested in, as the liner notes also put it, “blurring the lines between composition and improvisation”, without leaning too far in one direction (without, for example, the songs sounding completely like “ordinary”, composed songs, as they have on their most recent albums).They’re taking shards of pop melody and pushing them into an improvisational/experimental direction, creating textures and ideas. They’re setting up a room and destroying it, so it’s unstable but still feels like a room, is both comfortable and dangerous.

This is Sonic Youth’s first Geffen release that heads in this direction entirely. Erase that; it might be their first release in this direction, as there’s still a lingering melodic sheen here (lingering like a cloud) that isn’t present on most of their experimental, non-Geffen releases (the SYR series, for example). Unlike most of those releases, this isn’t entirely instrumental, either, though it mostly is; three songs feature vocals (Kim Gordon on two, Moore on one). The songs are not all of the same style, either. Most are off-kilter mood-jams that rage and roll with haunted beauty, but others are much different; the album as a whole has variety within the adventure trip.

The brief “Razor Blade” is a hushed Gordon sung letter over a strange country & western mood, with steel guitar even. Gordon’s other vocal appearance is on the minimalist “Blink”, where a skeletal framework sets up a complex horror-film mood that’s scary, but philosophical, lush, and introspective in a way. “Campfire”, filled with slithering electronic sounds, was performed on a Groovebox machine, commissioned for the Tannis Root/Grand Royal At Home With the Groovebox album. The jam “Loop Cat” contains many bizarre, hard-to-pin-down sounds… though actually the whole album is like that. Sonic Youth has always explored unusual instrumental set-ups, figuring out different ways to get sounds from the basic rock instruments. That’s especially evident here, on an album where several of the songs were “accidents”: songs built by carving an evocative side-trip out of an improvisational jam, or by taking a particular theme or mood (having the film Two-Lane Blacktop in their minds, for example) and following it wherever it leads them.

The Destroyed Room is ostensibly a collection of “B-Sides and Rarities”; that’s the guise under which this was released to the marketplace, and some of these songs have appeared before, on various-artists compilations or in movie soundtracks. But it feels absolutely like one album. It’s built-from-leftovers genesis is similar to Tom Waits’ recent acclaimed Orphans collection, but where that still feels like a randomly generated batch of Waits songs, this feels like one cohesive collection. It’s remarkable, amazing even, how together this album is, how everything fits into one overall statement, even while the 11 songs each represent an off-road trip with its own singular intentions, or lack thereof. In some ways it’s one of Sonic Youth’s most cohesive albums even, as strange as that sounds to say. It’s also one of their most exciting. It sounds like the wellspring of their creative energy, like a wild and naturally formed representation of the inherent elements of their music, those that have made them influential and, in their combination of pop/rock and experimental/artistic impulses, innovative.

The final of The Destroyed Room‘s collected side-trips is the full, 26-minute version of one of Sonic Youth’s grandest pop/experimental statements, Washing Machine‘s “The Diamond Sea”. It’s the right way to end this collection, with a reminder that the band’s Geffen Records period has not been marked by compromise — as fans feared back in 1990 — but by continued exploration, continually taking them in fresh directions. Even as its technically a retread as much as a new release, through its cohesive mood, and the exciting pieces that make up the whole, The Destroyed Room is yet another fresh new statement, one that shines brightly even within the complete, storied discography of Sonic Youth.

RATING 8 / 10