In online music discourse, NYC Ghosts & Flowers is one of Sonic Youth’s most notorious works for all the wrong reasons. On paper, it shouldn’t be noteworthy; it came out between the band’s flirtation with mainstream success in the early ‘90s and their critical renaissance in the ‘00s amid a string of decent records that are not the most welcoming for new fans. However, since we’re talking about online music discourse, it’s impossible to talk about the album without talking about Pitchfork. Yes, this is one of the treasured few releases to get the 0.0 rating from the site, putting mid-period Sonic Youth on par with such disreputable artistic pursuits as Travis Morrison’s post-Dismemberment Plan solo career, Liz Phair’s stab at pop stardom, and the mere existence of Australian hack-rock band Jet. As a result, there’s this idea in the minds of extremely online music nerds that NYC Ghosts & Flowers is bad to the point of repulsion, a mortal sin of art-wankery perpetrated by a band who were once so skilled at coming close to that threshold without crossing it.

That assertion is, to put it mildly, bullshit. Revisiting NYC Ghosts & Flowers 20 years later, it’s difficult to imagine that it could have been considered provocative in any way. Make no mistake, this is closer to Goodbye 20th Century than it is to Goo on the scale of Sonic Youth Accessibility, but it’s not nearly as confrontational on the face of it. More evolution than revolution, it’s a progression of the avant-garde ideas that the band started exploring after Washing Machine, and while it shares some musical DNA with the more highly regarded A Thousand Leaves, it takes the meandering, intricate jamming of that album to some bizarre places. If one were to place exactly when Sonic Youth changed from dingy, noisy punks to respected members of New York’s art elite, this album is probably it.

There’s another side to the story of NYC Ghosts & Flowers that had far more impact on the music than any snarky album review ever could: the band had their equipment stolen before they could start recording, and as a result, they used old guitars that hadn’t been used since the early, noisy part of their career. This comes out in some of the bizarre guitar sounds that the band creates, but it also bears itself out in just how little they emphasize guitar. For a band renowned for being noisy, Sonic Youth are awfully quiet here, scaling back on volume to emphasize lyrical content. Some of this could be chalked up to producer Jim O’Rourke, who was perfect for this project given his knack for smoothing over chaotic noise tracks. Still, there’s a sense that, on this album, at least, Sonic Youth wanted people to hear what they had to say.

Unfortunately, this is where they run into problems. Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s fearlessness as lyricists has often served them well both in Sonic Youth and on other projects, but it fails them here. Moore in particular comes off worse: the detached, cool tones of his voice don’t pair well with any sort of sincerity, and it only serves to underline the inherent emptiness of songs like “Free City Rhymes” and “Renegade Princess.” Gordon’s songs fare better, but even she isn’t immune to the occasional clunker: “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)” is easily the album’s best track, but it’s hard to hear Gordon repeat “Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider/ Girls go to Mars, become rock stars” and not wince a little. (Lee Ranaldo has one song on the album. It’s the title track, and it’s a Lee Ranaldo song. That’s about all that can be said about it.)

Yet, as flawed as it is, I can’t bring myself to hate NYC Ghosts & Flowers. It’s messy and has all the markings of a failed experiment, but the band’s instrumental interplay is as great as it ever was, and one could hear elements of the sound they would eventually explore on Murray Street, which began their second creative renaissance. To call NYC Ghosts & Flowers either a lost gem or a disaster would be massively overselling what kind album it is, and there’s enough to like about it if one is a fan of Sonic Youth’s weirder side already. It’s not the best Sonic Youth album, but it’s hardly a disaster. Let’s call it a 5.8 and leave it at that.

One Comment

  1. Relayer71

    January 12, 2021 at 3:58 pm

    Let’s call it an 8.

    The response to this album baffles me. It’s a much leaner version of A Thousand Leaves mixed with some Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. And no one trashes those albums. The first half is perfection and sure, it loses some steam by the time it’s all done, but that’s probably half of the SY catalogue, and I love NYC G & F because of its short run time (something that would have better served Dirty and A Thousand Leaves).

    This and Murray Street serve up some of that classic 2-punch of album releases: Evol/Sister, Experimental/Washing Machine. I was leaning initially towards a “trinity” comparison for these along with Sonic Nurse and Evol/Sister/Daydream Nation, but I’m in the minority in that Daydream Nation is one of my least SY albums (it really could have used some trimming, but more than that, I never liked the overall sound of that one – it’s a bit thin).

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