Sonic Youth: Murray Street

Sonic Youth
Murray Street

For those Sonic Youth fans — yes, even the rabid ones like myself — who couldn’t bring themselves to put their last disc, the poetic but downtempo NYC Ghosts and Flowers, on the shuffle setting, now is the time to breathe easier. Your grandfather’s Sonic Youth is back — kinda — with their latest offering, Murray Street, which is to be both a paean to Manhattan cultural history and the next millennium aural pyrotechnics that the band more or less invented in the late ’80s/early ’90s on classic releases like Daydream Nation and Sister.

But where the canonical Daydream Nation — or even Sonic Youth’s more visceral but endlessly brilliant Washing Machine — took aggressive trips into technical experimentation with clenched teeth and closed fists, Murray Street seems more interested in lighting up, putting the vibe in cruise control, and storytelling from the lighter fringe of the band’s sprawling creative geography. Most of the songs begin with a comfortable volume, notes tinkling in from the guitars of Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo, or the newly-added Jim O’Rourke like raindrops on the studio roof. Similarly, the heavy effects that saturated A Thousand Leaves‘ “Snare, Girl” or Washing Machine‘s “Becuz” or “Diamond Sea” are subdued — as is the general volume — in Murray Street to the point of seamless assimilation.

And as much as Sonic Youth’s efforts in the past to create a wall of sound meant cranking up the gravitas as much as possible (something which is exhilarating to experience, especially on Washing Machine‘s “Becuz” or “Junkie’s Promise”), Murray Street‘s greatest asset is its lilting, remarkable lightness. Even the required, extended noise sessions found somewhere on every album carries more soft than rough patches this time around. For example, the feedback-laced tweaking of Ranaldo’s “Karen Revisited” (a follow-up to A Thousand Leaves‘ moving, somber “Karen Koltrane”) lasts barely a minute or so before giving way to some reverb-heavy fingerpicking, buttressed by gorgeous, punctuated guitar and Steve Shelley’s rhythmic drumming. In fact, the experimental middle of “Karen Revisited” is a perfect soundtrack for the “Beyond the Infinite” space journey to the Jupiter monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey — try it one night, you’ll like it.

A fitting combination because, like those of Kubrick, Sonic Youth’s releases have always been more about an overall artistic experience/experiment than simple product placement. So go ahead and consider Murray Street to be Sonic Youth’s calmer, more introspective journey into the science of sound, one filled with just as many gifts as their earlier, more hard-hitting works. It’s filled with rewarding listens.

Like the disc’s finest track, “Disconnection Notice”, whose distorted guitars howl below the radar enough to feel complementary to the tune’s bouncy inertia. With a rambling, addictive chord progression that splits into several thematic strands around the four-minute mark, “Disconnection Notice” is the best example of Sonic Youth’s faith in a coherent yet hushed urgency, even though its lyrics offer only tales of fragmentation and isolation (“Did you get your disconnection notice/Mine came in the mail today/They seem to think I’m disconnected/Don’t think I know what to read or write or say”).

Same with Murray Street‘s first track, “The Empty Page”, in which an almost Morrison-like Thurston Moore embraces the freedom residing within that disconnection (“These are the words but not the truth/God bless them all when they speak to you/But that’s all right/You’re here to stay/Sing out tonight/The empty page”), even as that isolation leads to self-destruction (“Do you remember the time/When you were new in town/You smashed your head in the mirror, baby/And kissed the frozen ground”). All the while Ranaldo, O’Rourke and Moore himself are going mad on their guitars over and under Shelley”s stop-start percussion. Quietly mad, that is.

But where much of Murray Street feels like a rumination on one or another forms of Paradise Lost, “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” (great title!) is Sonic Youth’s anti-ageist anthem, a pounding reminder of the potency of artists — like SY and their faves, Yoko Ono and Neil Young — who exist outside the commodification metaverse of MTV, AOL and reality TV. It’s your standard, sobering Sonic Youth barnburner, filled with guitar shrieks, howls and squeals, and it’s about as loud as the band gets on Murray Street, which is not loud at all, actually. In the midst of their tonal shifts and sonic experimentation is a recurring penchant for quiet, even one filled with noise, as if they were worried about disturbing their neighbors.

Which is understandable, considering that Murray Street — both the album and physical space — were in a constant state of repair and disrepair due to the fact that they were so near Ground Zero. Although some of the album was recorded prior to the September 11th attacks, that tragedy’s immediate impact, its bracing reality check, its demand for endless moments of coping silence are subtexts found within each tune of Murray Street; no matter what some may call them, Sonic Youth are dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, after all. And the creative process of complex construction (something they’ve never shied away from, even on the more straight-ahead rock of Goo) must have felt odd in such negative space, in a geography that was destroyed, abandoned, uninhabited and in continual flux.

Indeed, you can tell by the title alone that Sonic Youth felt like concretizing the historical Moment: once the northern edge of Queen’s Farm and the original site of Columbia College in 1787, Murray Street is also where an engine from one of the planes that hit the Twin Towers landed, the birthplace of Lionel Trains, a terminus for Beach’s Pneumatic Subway, as well as the name of Sonic Youth’s studio. In short, it is as much a cultural geography as it is an album title.

Which is directly in line with the seminal band’s continual support and striving for the Artistic Experience. Whether they’re curating All Tomorrow’s Parties, tweaking conventions in any of their many side projects, or simply putting together another release (Murray Street is their sixteenth), Sonic Youth has always been more about engaging all of your senses and sensibilities than just simply rocking the mike, although they do that exceedingly well, too. As much as some may frown on Murray Street‘s restrained volume, so many more are applauding their relentless search for the perfect (or perfectly unsettling) aural soundscape, their ability to take brave chances and risks, and their resolute non-conformity. In that light, Murray Street is another shining entry in their already impressive list of accomplishments.