Listening to Sonic Youth's Murray Street for the 12th or so time, I've got to ask, this is what all the fuss is about?
What fuss? Well, blame Amy Phillips, a youngish rockcrit who penned a dismissive rant against Sonic Youth in the Village Voice a month or so back, calling for her former heroes to disband. This sparked a debate (doesn't take much) among the wonderfully indispensable mutants who tread the message boards of the I Love Music Web site, churning up all sorts of musical insight and not a little bit of ageism and sexism. ("Will Someone Please Keep Chuck Eddy Away From the Jailbait?" this particular thread inquired, referring to the Voice music editor's inclusion of young, often effusive women writers.)
From my vantage point, Phillips's review wasn't worth the clamor: You've gotta be pretty cranky to take a knee-jerk dis based on a flimsy premise as a call to arms. But as a Sonic Youth stalwart, I'm happy with anything that gets people arguing about the band for the first time in, hell, probably more than a dozen years. The viewpoints were varied, of course, but from what I can tell, most combatants could be divided into two camps: those who believe SY should have split up five years ago and those who think SY should have split up ten years ago.
Me, I represent a third party, a contingent of loyalists who haven't felt cause to desert just because the band learned to write songs, not even over Washing Machine. Like all third parties, we're doomed for electoral defeat if not ridicule. If 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers is too noisy, talky, or just plain slight for y'all, I'm not going to twist your arm.
But its predecessor, A Thousand Leaves, was simply beautiful. Beautiful like Al Green. Beautiful like rainbows and morning dew upon the green grass. Beautiful like the low hum of a lone car driving down your street at predawn. Lots of rock folk who enjoy tragic beauty can't back pulchritude when it's combined with comfort--there's something contented and suburban about that, I suppose. They can't bask in the chilly stoicism of Low, or the maudlin purtiness of Gillian Welch, and that's the point. But why shouldn't there be a place for domesticated noise, feedback, and atonality bent in the service of pleasurable reminiscence rather than an avant-garde foray?
Murray Street isn't that unabashedly pretty, but it's even more comfortable than its predecessors. I don't know why, but it seems to have lured some lapsed SY fans back into the fold. The "return to song form" argument is overstating the case, an indication of how quickly critics and fans alike buy into press-release speak. The structures are a bit more taut, true, but through all the feedback, Sonic Youth have always bashed about in pursuit of some strange melody. The band's integration of Chicago everygenre experimentalist Jim O'Rourke into full membership (he melds quite imperceptibly into the gestalt, actually) instigates comparisons with a Chicago underground I seriously hope no one is calling postrock anymore. Even when the songs are a formality for Sonic Youth, they demonstrate their commitment to pre-postrock.
Some of Murray Street has not just a lyrical, but a pastoral feel. "Rain on Tin" goes from a rave-up to a lovely rhapsodic passage and ends with a cross between the busy climax of "Marquee Moon" and the keyboard interlude in "Won't Get Fooled Again." And intricate little bits are strewn along the path. Drummer Steve Shelley commands no one's complete attention, but whenever you think to check in on him, he's doing the right thing--the slight drum tumbles, and cymbal twitters on "The Empty Page." Murray Street is an ongoing conversation between two or more guitars, two meandering lines. These songs are about subtle harmonic gradients, as one guitar drifts a casual microtone away. Forget the Dead-- would you believe Sonic Youth are a postpunk Allman Brothers?
The two Kim Gordon songs are an exception, as always. "Plastic Sun" is a hyper high-hat frenzy punctuated by a two-beat mistuned guitar punch, with Gordon as anti- as ever (though she delivers "I hate you and it never ends" in an angry whisper rather than an angry bark). Kim's two tunes are held off for last, because they don't fit the mood. But sometimes listeners need a bit of noise to justify being soothed for the five tracks before that.
And that's fine. "Noise annoys" has always been a healthy rock motto, but it has never been the whole of the law. The real trick is to batter the squall of urban life into a din that enlivens you. Eventually, that squall becomes your language, echoes the beat of your pulse and the puff of your breath (amplified x-tillion times, of course). That physiological adaptation has happened to Sonic Youth, and to fans like me as well by now. So while the debate over Murray Street is heartening, it's also moot. This is what Sonic Youth do, take it or leave it. There's really nothing left to argue about.