Building Nothing out of Something

Okay, officer, I recognize him now. The second man from the left stole my sousaphone: Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth never saved rock, and that's the best thing that never happened to them. In the early '80s, no one outside of New York's Lower East Side cared much about the band. When the rest of bohemia eventually took notice, it was still only bohemia Sonic Youth had to contend with, whatever their stated affinity for Bruce and Madonna. In the early '90s, even their Big Rock Sellout, 1992's Dirty, couched poppier-than-ever songs inside amp skree. They were as eager to fit into the ascendant alt-rock firmament as Stone Temple Pilots, and as fated to permanent outsiderdom as the Velvets.

Sonic Youth still excel at balancing pop's mainstream/underground dualism because they've always been enthusiastic about both sides of the equation. Listen to the commentary track on Corporate Ghost, Geffen's recent DVD of the band's videos from 1990's Goo through 2002's Murray Street, and you'll hear a band who is equally comfortable with their past (which they spent gunning for the big time) as with their comfortably marginal present. That goes for even the most dated clips: Dirty's "Youth Against Fascism" looks like a snowboarding video made by the art director of Ray Gun magazine, while Goo's "Dirty Boots" is a mosh-pit love story whose teenage protagonists' clothes are even cornier than the "plot." (The clip was filmed about 10 seconds before the entire cast's indie-wear fashions invaded Milan.) Most of the band's comments seem to say the same thing: That idea seemed good at the time. That's what we're used to hearing from public figures who helped define an era they've outlived. But Sonic Youth's jovial, unashamed tone makes it easy to append another thought to that statement: Hell, it's still a good idea.

The same goes for their basic sound, which goes essentially untouched on the new Sonic Nurse (Geffen). The music isn't the least bit surprising; it's also their best in a decade, if not since they kissed full-time indiedom goodbye with 1988's Daydream Nation, if not since... well, let's hold off on that last thought for now, because Sonic Youth keep making records that don't so much knock the others out of the annals as keep building an edifice you can climb into without losing touch with the real world. There's none of the Fall's cult of personality here, nor is there any of the Grateful Dead's mythology. What Sonic Youth sell is the idea of the everlasting now, even if every album is slightly different from its predecessor. Sonic Nurse feels more casual and poppier than Murray Street, which was a classic-rock yang to the experimental yin of 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers. You'll never mistake Sonic Nurse for Daydream Nation, but you can hear the same band on both albums--and that band is older, maybe wiser.

Not that Sonic Youth were ever selling insight. Even Kim Gordon's celebrity odes are less how-to advice than they are how-come queries (see Goo's "Tunic," about Karen Carpenter, or Nurse's "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," about Mariah Carey). And Thurston Moore is a born goofball even when he's getting political (see "Youth Against Fascism" or the new disc's "Peace Attack"). The band's sagacity has always been in their sound, and that's true even if they've slowed down since Dirty failed to go alternative platinum. You can joke that Sonic Youth are old, but isn't that the point? Their music since 1994's skeletal Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star has openly contended with the fact that they're not kids anymore. (Would that Mick Jagger copped to such wisdom.) When that album was released, they'd spent a decade inventing the influential sound-as-sound philosophy of the indie '80s--resonant then and especially now, when sound-as-meaning is a lot more commonplace. Unlike the music of their peers, that sound still carries through cheap or indifferent production.

Since Experimental Jet Set, Sonic Youth have been content to live in and explore that sound rather than pushing it to its limits. Plenty of people have yet to forgive their transition from barrier-shifting, sex-crazed, violent-feedback warriors to everyday sound molders who, like the free jazz players Moore idolizes, attempt to make their art inextricable from their lives. 1998's radically uneventful A Thousand Leaves showed the band at its most languid, but Murray Street and especially Sonic Nurse find them employing speed the way they do feedback--it's just something they bring out whenever they feel like it.

Sonic Nurse initially sounds so offhanded that you figure they're coasting. And they are, except there's nothing autopilot about it. They listen responsively, responding to one another's instrumental calls and coaxes, sounding more fluid than ever--partly due to 24 years of experience, partly due to an unwavering commitment to the Now. They've become a groove band, starting with Steve Shelley's drumming, which rolls more than it rocks. He's constantly propelling, and he's sneaky: On "Stones," his reentrance after a swelling guitar break has the kind of perfectly proportioned keel it takes ages to master. Sonic Youth have always had an ear for dynamics, but it's hard to imagine a time before Sonic Nurse when they could inject more tension into a song by slowing down and dropping certain instruments out (as they do with the Gordon-sung "I Love You Golden Blue") than by doing the opposite.

While Jim O'Rourke, who joined the band around the time of NYC Ghosts & Flowers, has undoubtedly helped Sonic Youth tighten their songs (he, like Gordon, switches between guitar and bass), it's Gordon who owns Sonic Nurse. She's never sounded better, even when she's hiccupping through "Arthur Doyle Hand Cream." Gordon is as unflappable as the "cool hunter" she name-checks on the William Gibson-inspired opener "Pattern Recognition," where guitars riff in Morse code and thrum into air turbulence while the drums get tribal and then a doomsday coda takes up nearly half the song. She's parched and harrowing on "Golden Blue," which sounds like a lament for lost innocence ("I can't read your mind/I can't find the time"). She strides through "Dude Ranch Nurse" (in which she slyly references, of all people, the Band: "Nobody knows the shape I'm in") while the rest of her own band slowly, and appropriately, gallops. Sure, they've done something like this before. They just do it slightly differently this time. And we hope that in 10 more years, they'll do it slightly differently again.

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