Label: Matador Records
Sometimes par for the course is all that’s needed. Sonic Youth have created a comfortable niche with their past decade of subdued, and often lush, releases. As expected, The Eternal continues this welcome-with-open-arms trend with another bout of playfully grounded songs that balance their early experimental roots with this mature sound more so than anything released since 1998’s A Thousand Leaves. Not to say they’re completely reverting back to their former creative sound, but the Youth’s entropic-experimentation-meets-compelling-alternative-rock approach is reaching its most fine-tuned levels yet.
2006’s Rather Ripped saw Sonic Youth’s most arguably traditional work to date, chock full of structured pop assemblies and nearly devoid of their signature meandering white noise improvisation. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo still found innovative ways of incorporating a fresh palette of whacked-out, modulated feedback tricks into these rather conventional progressions, but Rather Ripped’s core songwriting, as with any of the Youth’s work, was its shining knight in armor. Here, Moore’s and Ranaldo’s guitars shed their inhibitions in all their alternately-tuned glory, though the standout chops carrying many noise-improvs is Steve Shelley’s river of drum fills. In typical Sonic Youth fashion, tracks segue subtly from their verse-chorus-verse riffs into familiarly cacophonous territory. Often there’s a fleeting onset of let-down predictability that promptly recedes; after almost 30 years of instrumental freak-outs, the Youth still execute them with seasoned novelty.
By the second track, “Anti-Orgasm,” it’s evident the Youth haven’t lost their politically satiric appetite. In their most anthemic piece in years, singers Moore and Kim Gordon trade off: “Mission control to brain police/ Free lucky energy/ Penetration/ Destroys the party/ Violation/ Of a cosmic body/ Do you under/ Sell a problem/ Anti-war/ Is anti-orgasm.” As usual, many of Gordon’s offerings reflect this dark, seductive energy. “Sacred Trickster” opens the album with her signature estrogenic howl, while the eerie “Malibu Gas Station” sees her on a more reserved note, until sporadic instrumental freakouts interrupt the wavering clean-tone guitar chords. It’s as if the noise bursts are metaphors for volatile, raging hormones.
Even with Gordon’s overtly influenced tracks, The Eternal presents a more cohesive effort. Gordon, Moore and Ranaldo have always explicitly divvied up the songwriting duties; however, this time around there’s less songwriting distinction than ever. Sure, Ranaldo-sounding tracks bear the similar dropped, droning guitar tuning of past highlights like his “Karen Koltrane;” still, a careful listener can pick out elements indicating creative melding across the band. The best example is closing song “Massage the History.” The group’s longest experimental track since Murray Street’s “Karen Revisited,” “Massage” is an appropriately titled nightcap summing up Sonic Youth’s essence in 10 minutes. A solid groove, catchy melody and extended outro of supreme musicianship go a long way. The band has honed their sound for the past 26 years, and while many milestone marks have been made, The Eternal ushers in the start of many more to come. If Sonic Youth wants to keep massaging their history, there’s not much more we need to ask for.