Sonic Youth might be my favorite rock band for reasons that would go off this page, but we can spare a paragraph. It’s partly because their marriage of noise and melody are liberating. It’s partly because their influences range from John Cage to the Velvet Underground; from Glenn Branca to Nirvana. It’s partly because as they grew older, they stopped trying to be so youthful (despite the name); they stopped equating confusion with sex by looking for clues in poetry, so to speak. It’s partly because their music seemed born out of or the solution to suburban malaise. But it’s mostly to do with the fact that their music kicks ass, and there’s a lot of it.
Of the three Sonic Youth songwriters, I’ve always like Thurston Moore the most. His voice is eternally warm and casually melodic for someone oft-described as a slacker. His solo discography has been almost impossible to navigate; though the main releases get plenty of press, most of it is, as Nick Soulsby writes, “dismissively tagged as a side project at best, or otherwise a curio, demo, leftover, try-out, slumming or moonlighting” (p. 2). It’s perhaps no surprise that Moore has collaborated with Jim O’Rourke or John Zorn: they’re all artists who seem to be releasing three projects a year.
Soulsby states the purpose of this oral history quite plainly: “…to correct the neglect of his vibrant discography, to recognise him as an artist in his own right with an existence outside the context of [Sonic Youth]” (p. 2). Hard to say it succeeds: We Sing a New Language won’t do much if you’re not a heavily-invested Sonic Youth/ Thurston Moore/ noise/ free improvisation fan. There are little details from the various contributors that you won’t get anywhere else. For example, I’ve always known Thurston Moore featured on R.E.M.’s “Monster”, and contrary to Wikipedia’s entry, Moore claims he only did backing vocals. Elsewhere, however, engineer Justin Pizzoferrato notes that Trees Outside the Academy was recorded within J Mascis’ house.
Expectedly, other than the aforementioned factoids, the rest is heavy praise: Yoko Ono drops in for two sentences (p. 214) while many of the lesser-knowns describe how wonderful it was to work with Thurston. Joe Tunis remarks, “Putting out a release by Thurston definitely garnered some attention, and actually it helped legitimise the label a bit locally … once [people] heard I put out something from ‘the guy in Sonic Youth’, they were like, ‘Oh wow, it’s kind of a real label” (p. 201); Deb Googe says, “Thurston messaged me to see if I would be interested in playing bass for them, and of course I was… it’s Thurston Moore!” (p. 214).
I assumed Thurston Moore was going to be a biography parallel to Kim Gordon‘s excellent Girl in a Band: A Memoir, which wasn’t just revelatory of her as a person, but also the band and the albums they made together. I assumed a Thurston Moore biography was going to try to rectify a lot of the bad press Moore has received since the band’s dissolution and it was revealed he was cheating on her. Thurston Moore is not a biography, but it seems to provide biographical information as its main purpose. “A biographical study, isolating Moore entirely, seemed inappropriate when the music under consideration is an expression of what creative individuals can unleash together in unison,” writes Soulsby. Maybe that’s fair, and there’s nothing wrong with the format of an oral history, especially one for a discography like Thurston’s. I just wish there were more revelations about the albums therein.