Monday, June 1, 2009

album review: SONIC YOUTH - The Eternal (Matador)

When it was announced that Sonic Youth, having honoured their contract with Geffen Records, had signed with much-admired independent label Matador, many of us came to the same conclusion: after the concise, streamlined accessibility of 2006’s Rather Ripped, it was time for the Youth to renew their love affair with the underground and pursue the avant-garde aesthetic that first inspired them.

Well, you know what they say about assumptions. If anything, new album The Eternal is even more direct and straight-rocking than its predecessor, although it’s also scuzzier and more rough-edged: it’s what 1992’s Dirty might have sounded like without Butch Vig’s polished production.

Which mightn’t be the kind of thing many Youth fans want to hear: one of the most divisive moves they ever made was following their masterpiece Daydream Nation (a sprawling combination of avant-garde noise and hardcore punk) with the more succint Goo and Dirty, albums that stripped their tunes back and smoothed them out in an attempt to infiltrate the mainstream. Granted, the excellent Rather Ripped was a delightful reminder that these godfathers of alternative rock can write a killer tune when the mood takes them, but most of us were hoping that their next move would be a little more unconventional: after all, albums like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse had shown that, even in their third decade, the band could still write expansive, celestial guitar jams like no other.

Still, a Youth album is a Youth album, so let’s take it on its own terms. Opening track ‘Sacred Trickster’ should already be familiar: a short, sharp blast of brattish, Kim-fronted punk aggro propelled by a chugging rhythm and guitars set to stun, it pretty much lays down the blueprint for what’s to follow. The guttural, grinding ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sees all three vocalists pitching in, with Thurston and Kim groaning together in suggestive unison, while ‘Calming The Snake’ is a sinister mix of screeching, discordant guitars and Kim’s pleading, echoing vocals. All three tracks are impressive, with a level of vitality and aggression that belies the group’s collective age, and they’re distinguished by the kind of superb drumming that reminds you how much of a relief it must be for Steve Shelley when the Youth decide to rock out. Similarly, Lee Ranaldo has often excelled with more conventional approaches to songcraft, and the tracks he takes lead on here – ‘What We Know’ and ‘Walkin Blue’ – reflect this, providing the album with a subtle but much needed dynamic shift.

Unfortunately, the formula wears mighty thin on other tracks, such as ‘Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)’ or ‘No Way’: there’s no shortage of energy, yet you still can’t shake the feeling that the band are going through the motions, knocking out tunes without really pushing themselves. The Eternal was apparently the result of short, sporadic sessions of writing and recording, and this no doubt contributes to the offhand feel of much of the material. Of course, that approach to recording has much to do with the fact that the Youth all have families and live in separate states, but one wonders how things could turn out if they got together and jammed out ideas in the studio as they did with 2002’s Murray Street.

It’s telling that the two best tracks on the album are marked by a slower, more considered tempo. ‘Antenna’ is a moody, stately reverie in the vein of ‘Unmade Bed’ or ‘The Diamond Sea’; while closing track ‘Massage The History’ is reminiscent of ‘Sympathy For The Strawberry’, an eerie, windswept soundscape framing Kim’s elegiac crooning (“Come with me to the other side/Not everyone makes it out alive”), interrupted midway through by a passage of vintage dissonant guitar squall.

On the whole though, there’s no mistaking the sense of anti-climax that surrounds The Eternal. Even the Youth’s more maligned albums had some sort of aesthetic or purpose, be it the fragmentary, lo-fi sound of Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star or the NYC/Beat tributes of NYC Ghosts & Flowers. This is arguably the first one that feels, well, unoriginal. And while there’s plenty of people who’d contend that they actually prefer the band in their more accessible guise, even they’d have to admit that there’s nothing here that packs the same sonic punch as a ‘100%’ or a ‘Sugar Kane’. A good album, not a great one, and it’s only because of the impeccable standards they’ve set that we expect greatness.