Sister is the moment the band broke out and perfected themselves.
Retaining all the no-wave abrasion of the group’s first few albums yet demonstrating a compositional competence that began to skew their noisier elements toward something more conventional, EVOL marked the way forward for Sonic Youth. It was here that Sonic Youth as most of us understand them was born; a foundational sound of the ‘80s underground suddenly paving the way forward to its eventual breakthrough into the mainstream, all without a single sacrifice of purpose. Yet there was still room to further shape the hiss and squall into actual songs, and that breakthrough would come with 1987’s Sister.
The hushed tones that pervaded EVOL have nothing on “Schizophrenia,” which opens the album with a hauntingly elegiac tone. Guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore remain out of tune, but they are yoked to a simple, rolling riff that gives shape to their spikes of clanging atonality. Over this, Moore intones lyrics about a friend’s troubled sister whose manic episodes are downplayed by her brother and simply troubling to the singer. In the track’s second half, Kim Gordon assumes the role of the sister, singing with the same detached drawl that links the two perspectives and tacitly suggests that Moore’s ostensibly objective observer is as spaced out as the friend’s presumably medicated sibling. Under this, the guitars struggle against the song’s structure, occasionally sprinting out of control before falling back in line, a reflection of scattered impulses rising to the surface.
Following the band’s most beautiful, unsettling track to this point, “Catholic Block” gallops out as their most punk tune, all scree backed by Steve Shelley’s hissing hi-hats and pummeling snares. Lyrically, the track provides a foil for “Schizophrenia,” replacing mental instability caused by illness for one formed by the socializing dogma of religion and the guilt it instills on natural human urges. Where the opener felt lost in its madness, “Catholic Block” shoves back against the cause of its hang-ups, with Shelley overwhelming even Lee and Ranaldo with his fury. The drummer is the secret star of the entire record, bringing a similar intensity to the crashing “Pipeline/Kill Time,” the Dale Crover-esque walloping sludge of “Pacific Coast Highway,” and the shuffling delicacy that underpins Moore and Ranaldo’s shambolic crunch on “Cotton Crown.”
Shelley’s own developments are matched by the bass input of Gordon. Her high-necked sprint through “Stereo Sanctity” syncs with Shelley’s driving percussion to put a classic punk spin underneath Moore and Ranaldo’s maelstrom. She places warm pulses of bass on “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” using a wah pedal to further bliss out her sound under the acoustic guitars, matching the somber but entrancing nature of her vocals, which beckon, siren-like, to a codependent lover to return. Closer “White Cross” is as much Gordon’s song as the guitarists,’ her bass mixed right up front so that her trills punch through the center and send Moore and Ranaldo spiraling off to the sides. It’s here that Gordon and Shelley established themselves as the finest rhythm section of the ‘80s underground, the ultimate bedrock for the band’s post-punk roar.
If Gordon and Shelley stand out better in retrospect, however, there’s also no denying how much Moore and Ranaldo have progressed. Impossible to separate from each other, the duo fully emerge here as the multi-headed hydra that would produce arguably the best and most seismically innovative mainstream guitar work since Hendrix. Listen to the way artificial static morphs into the darting rapier stabs of “Catholic Block,” which in turn climb like fighter jets until they stall out in the lower stratosphere and plummet back to Earth moving faster than ever. “Tuff Gnarl” disrupts a muted indie riff with screeches of an off-tone chord before both men resolve around a swirling eddy of feedback. Even when they play it straight – as they do on the cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” – Moore and Ranaldo separate their parts just enough so that the glammed lines of lead guitar sound less like a caterwauling solo and more a caged animal lashing out at its master.
Armed with lyrics of total disaffection and frustration, Sonic Youth consolidated themselves on Sister as the pre-eminent band of Generation X’s rapidly blossoming underground. They were as loud as Hüsker Dü but with greater clarity, as cheeky as Minutemen without the insularity, less depressive and more dispassionate than the host of bands attempting to capture the curious void at the heart of the generation’s ennui. The band would ride the crest of this album’s wave through their own commercial breakthrough, post-Nevermind blitzkrieg and their eventual settling as indie legends with only a few hiccups, breaking apart and reconfiguring its pieces into wildly variable outcomes. The breadth and quality of Sonic Youth’s discography makes arguments over their best album largely a moot point, with at least three or four top-shelf contenders rising to the top along with a number of dark horse possibilities. But there’s no denying that Sister is the moment the band broke out and perfected themselves. It still stands tall among the finest albums of its time.