Calling Sonic Youth a legend, an institution, or a sub-genre unto itself feels like a cop-out at this point. At times, the storied, middle-aging NYC quintet—guitarists/singers Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, and Lee Ranaldo, drummer Steve Shelley, and new member Mark Ibold (formerly of Pavement and the Dust Devils) on bass—seem less like an actual band than a strumming, feedback-savoring repository. So why not consider Sonic Youth from a slightly different angle—as an uber-leftist liberal arts curriculum?
Beat Generation rebellion whet your outsider-mindset whistle? Then beg the registrar to let you audit A Thousand Leaves (1998) and place you on the wait list for NYC Ghosts & Flowers (2000). Looking for "Blizzard of Ash: Buckling Down and Rising Up in Post-9/11 New York City"? Try 2002's Murray Street. Feening to register for "Freaks, Killers, and LSD Sheets"? Cop 1985's Bad Moon Rising. "No-Wave 101"? You'd better be down for midnight cramming sessions with 1983's Confusion Is Sex. Want to have a very abstract sense of whatever it meant to be an alt-qua-indie-rock nerd in the mid-1990s? Submit to the one-two punch of 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash, & No Star and 1995's Washing Machine. Desperate for a visceral deconstructionalist take on the cult of personality? Then snag The Whitey Album, from 1989. Jonesin' for a crash course in minimalist music composition without needing to rummage through dusty LP bins in record stores or to spring for a subscription to The Wire? Sonic Youth's got your backs there—you iPod-suckling slackers, you—with 1999's Goodbye 20th Century.
The Eternal, Sonic Youth's first album for indie-rock stalwart Matador after two decades in the major-label wilderness, would seem to buck this idea. It's not ostensibly about anything concrete in particular, the way 2004's Sonic Nurse, say, was about Life During Dubya-D'oh! Wartime. The triplet guitars of Moore, Ranaldo, and Gordon lull, shiver, and charge full-tilt into canyons full of gratuitous echo and sparkle; Shelley keeps able enough time, while Ibold's bass lines are pretty much buried. Behind the microphone, Moore plaints, breathlessly; Ranaldo declaims, triumphantly; Gordon beguiles, bewitchingly. At moments, the vocalists—in twos and threes, sometimes—co-harmonize, adding a new wrinkle to the group's tradition of having each singer try his or her hand at singing a tune. The Eternal comes across as familiar—one might say too familiar—to anybody who's logged serious Sonic Youth time. So familiar, with its shopworn glisten and glow-to-skronk dynamics, that it's easy to miss that this album is about itself: not Gregory Corso, or Bobby Byn, or any of the other punk/avant-garde/underground personas/pariahs its syllabus bullet-points are superficially dedicated to.
From the title on down, The Eternal is a lesson in what it means to be Sonic Youth after nearly 30 tumultuous years—a barnacled bulwark holding fast in alt-indie-whatever's ever-shifting currents—and what its members have learned in the process. Realization comes in dribs and drabs, like references to rust and radio transmissions in the whirring, languid "Antenna." The tune winks at Stereolab with its monochord, all-for-one compositional lunges—another long-running indie crew, saluted—but also stacks layers and layers of guitar wizardry onto a deceptively basic melodic frame without overloading it. Experience counts.
Suspect bon mots abound, driving the theme home. "Don't you love me yet?/Press up against the amp, turn up the treble" from "Sacred Trickster" is a coy bit of self-mythologizing, the "You got another chance to score" quip from "Leaky Lifeboat" a clear reference to the band's continuing luck—no drug overdoses, no breakups, no deaths. Shimmying come-on "Calming the Snake" doesn't even try to hide what it is: an aural lick and promise of perpetual titillation.
At first listen, "Malibu Gas Station" is just another Sonic Youth celeb excoriation. Pop tart Britney Spears is brought to heel as so many others before her were: Gordon gear-shifting from the perspective of her troubled subject to the paparazzi and back as massed guitars transition from clipped trot to eerie dirge to boulevard skip to pro-distortion orgasm. We're given license to smirk along, to feel superior to Kevin Federline's ex-wife and photographers who wear restraining orders as badges of pride. But Gordon's actually onto something else, effectively indicting everyone participating in and consuming our plugged-in media-frenzy culture for the instant-gratification gluttony that keeps us buzzing, whether it's for scandalous details about the late Michael Jackson's personal life or Animal Collective live mp3s or, well, Sonic Youth ephemera. "Come on, move me/Turn me on now," she urges, later murmuring, "Everybody down, rolling on the ground." And the irony—that this kind of fascinated idolatry has helped keep SY alive in the public mind—can't have been lost on a band who've been reluctant to explicitly embrace irony.
"Come along with me to the other side/Not everyone makes it out alive," Gordon coos toward the end of dithering, drifting daydream "Massaging the History." The Eternal asserts that Sonic Youth made it out alive, survived intact, and aren't going to be anything different than what they, at essence, have always been: a prism refracting American culture in its own discordant way.
SONIC YOUTH play with Awesome Color on TUESDAY, JULY 21, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775