Thursday, September 2, 2010

Beautiful Jukebox: The Music of Sonic Youth (Selection 19--Not Subject To Change, Shall Not Perish)

JUNE 9, 2009

"A comfortable old age is the reward of a well-spent youth. Instead of its bringing sad and melancholy prospects of decay, it would give us hopes of eternal youth in a better world"--Maurice Chevalier

The last time Sonic Youth went three years between albums, the end result was their finest record to date. The thousand day gap does 'em good, clearly; The Eternal is easily their most satisfying full-length since A Thousand Leaves. Nothing on it plumbs the depths of "Sleepin' Around" or "Small Flowers Crack Concrete" (two songs that we shall never speak of again, until it's time to speak of them again); in fact, there isn't a single bad song. In my review for The Whitey Album I said "The Eternal slays like a dungeon fulla Zelda Blue Knights" and I meant it.

On a superficial level, it's also their best-titled album since 1998 as well. Thurston Moore is ever ready with a go-to overarching influence to rubber stamp every promo interview with, and for The Eternal, it was the black metal genre. "Eternal" apparently strikes T-man as a very "black metal" word; it pops up frequently in album and song titles.* Thurston is actually a well-informed, articulate fan of this particular brand of "non-music"--I take slight umbrage with his blithe dismissal of death metal, though--but you don't have to press "Play" to know SY are not doing anything black or metal on this album. Dark, yes; intense, yes. But no one will be torching churches or worshiping dark lords to these songs (incidentally, I've always found black metal lyrics to be more secular humanist than anything).

How to explain it? Was it departing the major leagues for Matador Records, the venerable label run by old Homestead honcho Gerard Cosloy? Was it the string of shows performing Daydream Nation in its entirety for the Don't Look Back concert series? Was it the addition of former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold? Was it increased comfort with producer John Agnello? Was it the unavoidable reality that if you're going to put John Fahey "ass art" as your cover, the goods better be delivered on time and with smooth corners?

It's everything we think it could be and a hell of a lot we would never imagine.

*(The romantically-inclined could also see the title as a nod to the odds-defying marriage of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, who on the very release date celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. Sonic life.)

"Sacred Trickster"--A baby of a tune at 2:11, but if you're dowsing out the genius of 21st century Youth, here ye be. That one guitar at the very start is just like a little kid, mimicking its older sibling, just begging for some angry attention. When it happens, and the fellas go rollin' around the house in a tornado of puerile violence, mama is hardly perturbed.

"I want you to levitate me." Okay...I owe you one. Deal? Hey, Kim--deal? Heh heh.

After 30 years doing anything (including living), you get smarter or you atrophy and die off. That's why "Sacred Trickster" lunges over edges without plummeting down, times its peaks to perfection and leaves me wanting nothing when it's all over.

"Anti-Orgasm"--When the tracklist for The Eternal was revealed, I was not alone in my eagerness to hear this one before all others. With a title like "Anti-Orgasm," the potential was mountainous. Sonic Youth scaled it, and planted a glorious flag at the summit. Kim, Thurston and Lee on shared vocals is pro-orgasm.

The at-odds lyrics were inspired by a German film called The Wild Life, a biopic about Uschi Obermaier, a model who retreated to Kommune 1, a gathering of naked hippie radicals. One of the scenes shows her and her partner in bed, while another couple tries and fails to pass go nearby, thanks to the guy's sudden impotence. Obermaier's dude remarks that "he's anti-orgasm," a rather incisive quip at the antagonist nature of radical culture, so immured from conspicuous over-consumption that all selfish pleasures become threatening.

Of all the SY tunes featuring multiple vocalists--there aren't many--this is the champ. By pinfall. Multi's a-poppin'. Kim, Thurston and Lee and you discern each voice? Backing vocals that aren't liminal; I may weep. Kim and Thurston trading lines? Jesus crab-crackin' Christ! The grunting refrain? Forget it. I just looked outside my kitchen window and saw red sprites tunneling through fireballs in the sky. Either a meth lab nearby met its timely end, or this song is too incredible to exist.

Of course, there's an afterglow. There was a during-glow, too, you know.

"Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)"--A Thousand Leaves would be perfect save for two minor flaws: the frog farts on "Karen Koltrane" and the dedication to Ginsberg. I always wished SY had honored a greater poet. Like, you know, Gregory Corso, who was not crazy at all. (Ginsberg wouldn't have hesitated to tell you he himself was nowhere near the wordsmith his less-heralded compatriot was.) Well, better later than not at all, and who's to say it's really late anyway. Mind you, the lyrics borrow more from ol' Herman Blount than anybody; even the very beginning, those aren't guitar strings, those are creaky sunbeams.

The title is direct from Corso, however, who once described life on this planet as a "leaky lifeboat." The music follows in the same vein; I always feel woozy when I hear it, like I need to get my sea legs. The toads yawning at opportune moments helps a bit, lets me know I'm not alone.

Thurston and Kim share vocals here as well; while Thurston is more prominent on the verses, Kim is wisely higher in the mix when the "la la la la" section comes in. Oh yes. This song has a "la la la la" section. And it's brilliant. Imagine telling 1985 Thurston that in 24 years he'll be recording a song with sweet, untrammelled "la la la la"s.

"Antenna"--Lee Ranaldo is the Delay King, making him a sight cooler than, say, the Crimson King, although both men run tidy palaces.

Thurston sounds dreamy (as in "like a dream" not like "oh my Gooood, he's so dreamy!") singing about his vagabond muse. Or such is my interpretation. "Forever yours and then she's gone." Sounds about right. The radio references suggest it could be a sweeter take on "Angie Baby." (If you've never heard that song, I don't advise it. Notice I didn't even tell you who sang it.)

Lee joins in at the chorus. The dual harmonies are so stunning they solidify breath. My favorite moment is at 2:59 when one of them (I'm thinking it's Lee) goes a bit off the agreed pitch. Then begins the stretch, very reminiscent of Washing Machine era Youth.

I still can't get over that fuckin' chorus though. When you're hanging at a friend's place, slightly drunk and sitting alone on the couch, and they're in the kitchen, or the bathroom, and "Antenna" is on the stereo 'cause fuck I-culture why can't we put the music we love in the air every now and then, and that chorus shines through the speakers. It's like inspiration to take immediate inventory of the life you live in and outside of your own head, and realizing that it's actually sweeter for being ephemeral. There's just enough time to sit frozen by the exponential joy that's suddenly seized you, eyes glistening, before your friend returns and it's time to eat, drink and be okay.

"What We Know"--Starts off with a rumble roll that the previous rhythm section really couldn't provide. Then, oh shit, it's Lee! Double-tracked for your pleasure.

Lee is all about unity and positivity this album. And jacking hot lines from Roberta Anderson. (Talent borrows....) "What We Know" could be read as a tribute to the band, a tribute to a love...each verse seems to refer to a different period of time within a relationship of some sort, and the choruses are no less variable, acknowledging that there's three sides to every story. (Kim's presence makes this seem more like a dialogue, as well.)

When there are no words, there is the relentless pursuit of pleasure, which is itself the maximum bliss. Headbutting concrete into powder, it's just another day of the life.

"Calming the Snake"--Ibold slithers from behind the bar, but the anacondas squeeze is what the crowd gathered for. Air in short supply, and getting shorter by the second. Then, at 0:53, the grip loosens and bodies onomatopoeia all over the place.

"Come on down, down to the river." Goddamn Kim sure loves that place. Probably 'cause there's lots of snakes.

My only beef is the echo effect on the vocals. It actually does a great service when Kim is just sounding off, but it makes for a very unnecessary swampy sound during the verses. Again, a minor problem. It doesn't take very long for words to become irrelevant, and for the desire to rip my shirt ala old-school Hulkster to swell up within me. It ebbs as I remember my tendency to wear bad-ass tees. I love SY, y'all, but I ain't crazy.

"Poison Arrow"--Foghat had "Golden Arrow" and that was cool, for a classic rocket-gang. Then ABC did "Poison Arrow," which was flamboyantly fabulous and deliciously disposable in the way that stayed stuck in the 80s along with Bonkers! and Prince's talent.

T-bone's Lou Reed stylin' got the majority of the attention, but for me it's all about SS Beat Control Clinic. Beats R Him. He Got the Beats. If you heard Sonic Youth play "Poison Arrow" live last year and didn't find yourself drawn to that explosive ball of energy emanating from the kit, well I guess you just heard it then, didn't you. Or you had a real shitty spot in the crowd.

You know what Steve Shelley's Wu-Tang name is? Steve Shelley.*

I won't ignore T's Reed, it is fairly end-boss status. "Paintings they faaalll off the walls/When you come traipsing in with your horse." Traipsing! Fuck yeah.

This shit rocks and refuses to stop. Although I doubt it was ever asked to. Only glitch? Weird-ass panning of Lee and Kim's vocals during the chorus. That said, you should notice by now that no album in their history has featured so much multi-vocalist action. It works a storm, it does. It's like having a dream during a dream. Bless you.

*I actually had the opportunity to tell Steve in person how much I loved his drumming on "Poison Arrow" and he shared with me and my friends the tasty tidbit that he deliberately played in the style of the skinsman obscure band that I cannot remember the name of. I usually can dredge stuff like that up in half a heartbeat and it kinda drives me nuts to this day.

"Malibu Gas Station"--While it's common knowledge which lyrics Thurston scribbled for his missus on Rather Ripped (and others, throughout the band's history), I've yet to find any information that confirms he handed her some words for The Eternal. If I had to guess, I would say he wrote the majority of this one (everything bar the free-form "Everybody down" parts). My evidence? Kim generally doesn't write to the guitar parts. If I'm correct, that means the mind of Moore is responsible for gems like "Oops no underwear" and, best, "the breasts are bangin'," which is seriously a contender for greatest line in a Sonic Youth song ever.

Like "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," this is a vibrating paean to a mega-celebrity female singer of questionable mental stability, except Britney Spears can't actually sing. Apparently Britney was caught by paps at a gas station in Malibu coming out of the restroom barefoot. That's amazing. It's not like coming out of a restaurant restroom sans shoes and socks, now is it? Yet, it's newsworthy because enough people give it attention. Look what I just did.

Sonic Youth are culpable too, but at least they crafted something you can use during a melodic intonation therapy session. The beginning is superbly ATL-esque, a mosaic of shooting stars that fade to a bright California late AM. Kim's vocal delivery veers from barely more than spoken to droll come-on with the minimum effort required. "Come on do it/You gotta use it/That-a girl/Don't you blow it." That's not forgetting your footwear at a Malibu gas station, that's swaggering down the Santa Monica pier, unencumbered by panties, pretending you're beautiful. Open, round brilliant cut, and a bit delusional.

It feels longer than it is, which many times is negative but in this case is a positive. No dragging, just kicking and screaming. When the noisy soul-kiss pulls back--and remember, there is a considerable difference between creating a cacaphony and being a "caca phony"--and the final verse slips slick into the abandoned slot, you gotta love above all Steve with the extra BAP BAP BAP CRASH! after each line, like he's still reeling and cruising on the adrenaline, 'cause how could he not?

"Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)"--The title references the lesser-known pseudonym of Jan Beahm, while the actual song itself references that part of my brain that can still vividly recall soap box derby cars speeding down the road next to my parents house and crashing into small bales of hay while fat hillbillies in lawn chairs ate hot dogs.

"Thunderclap" is a showcase for Thurston's stream-of-consciousness poetry, and generally these are the oxygen-suckers of the album, but son of a biscuit face, he pulls it off. Should "Rapacious gardens of female distinction" work? Yes it should and yes it does. "Hair falls in a deadbeat's curtain/Trash can Canterbury/Hollywood Boulevard." It's like Thurston got Ghostface Killah's fortune cookie. (Only the overly precious enunciation on "libraries of rubble" irks.)

If the "la la" refrain on "Leaky Lifeboat" was stunning to hear on an SY record, the "yeah yeah yeah" and "whoa-oh-oh"s (courtesy of Thurston and Kim) made jaws drop audibly. It's like a reserved young girl tagging along with that naughty neighbor boy whose pockets are always bulging with rocks and firecrackers. Something will be damaged, and there's a good chance of tongue.

It's also redolent of the Honeycomb cereal song. Just me?

"No Way"--Thurston J. Temple burnin' up 'cause of yer love which wasn't. Your contumelious attitude bristles, bitch! You better shuffle off to Grenoble, baby; yer persona non grata 'round here now. Lee helps his pal out on the chorus, 'cause he never liked you anyway!

"Walkin' Blue"--Lee's second lap is helpfully optimistic.

I'm here to let you know All we need to do Is just to just let go You've heard we're born to lose I know But don't start to think that's really true

The problem, far as I can see, isn't really "starting" to think such a dire thought, as that's virtually unavoidable. The real dilemma arises when the blues aren't of the walkin' variety. Rather they've slugged you off your feet and onto your back. The deepest blues that can look pitch black from unfortunate angles.

Let's say You and I, we find something hard to hold Let's keep it in our mind And let it fill our days

Way ahead of you.

Then we slip and finally let it stray.

Ah. Not that far yet. Not that "evolved" as of this date. I know what he's getting at here, though; the first seconds of the song provide a gorgeous example of it, as does also the circuitous motif that follows each verse.

Lee keeps insisting that things are "clear." I'd like to one day agree with him.

(Yet another song that features two SY members on the mic, although not everyone catches Thurston here. Listen at 1:22; unmistakable.)

"Massage the History"--Kim took Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the dying record industry as dual inspirations. For the music, the entire band looked to nature's inexorable imperative: adapt or perish. Except the thing is, and you're gonna love this...they didn't take it to apply to themselves.

Age has not attenuated the gifts of Sonic Youth even as the world actively seeks to grow smaller by the half-day. In a world of increased availability of seemingly everything, Sonic Youth make you wait 100 seconds before Kim starts singing. The lead in is a magnificent melding of Thurston's acoustic and Lee's electric slide guitar playing. The resultant mirage melts bones. Somehow I'm slinking towards the end. There's great treasure to be had there. I know it.

Kim vacillates between croon and strain. The tension is high; the sensuality is palpable. It's kinda tempting...just to lay a minute. Then another minute. I don't think I'll ever run out of time, this song is going to go on forever....

"Youuuuuuuuuuu and meeeeeeee..."

2:51 to 2:54. Three seconds where the best parts go taut against each other. Lee's mournful slide; Kim's yearning voice. It seems almost impossible for such a rapturous concurrence of sounds to exist. That it does is testament to the rewards of the journey.

"You're so close/Close to me."

Onward. Onward.

There isn't a wasted second to "Massage the History," literally, but from 4:33 on the song suddenly becomes wild with the power to piss you off. Like lifelong grudge status. Because no hereafter dreamed up by the human mind in any period of civilization could match the resplendency of this song. It pushes itself to heights previously unscaled by equally determined explorers. It seems effortless, but the notes are beads of sweat flying off skin, the drum beats are palpitations threatening to burst through and expose to air what must remain encased to stay vital.

Yet...I quicken my steps to the music, I block out all thought but the end and how glorious it will be. The princess is not in another goddamn castle, I am the princess.

Kim G. is the queen. Wise and solicitous. Also, a bit scary.

"Come with me/To the other side/Not everyone makes it out alive." She repeats herself. Understand now, minion?

Kim sounds just torn to bits. Is it the pain of love or the love of pain? "I want you to suck my neck/Suck."

With those words, a canopy is created, covering my immediate view of the sky above me. I can still see the horizon ahead, however, and feel my own jittery pulse. The metallic notes pound out in my head. It's overwhelming, I can't breathe. Thoughts don't persist to cohere. I told you earlier "What We Know" pounds concrete to powder; "Massage the History" melts fucking bone and compresses flesh to air. There is no end to air. The journey has begun.

Sonic Youth could end their careers on this album, this song. It's a love story, a temperature reading, and a nod to lives and deaths both false and true. Play it for your nearest friendly ghost, and I bet they'll feel human again, for those ten minutes.

And that, my friends, is it. The Beautiful Jukebox shuts down, dormant till the newest selection lights it up once more. I thank you for enduring my tangential madness. It is my sincere wish that you were entertained and enlightened throughout. I may have surprised some readers anticipating an across-the-board deifi-fuckin'-cation of the band; although Sonic Youth are to my mind The Greatest Band Extant, no one is free from flaw. I hope you found me fair to the music I love.

Thank you to Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, Jim O'Rourke, Mark Ibold, Bob Bert, Jim Sclavunos and Richard Edson for inspiring me in the first place. Not only on this review series, but in all the writing that escapes my thousands of scattered pens. The journey begins anew every day.


  1. You know what Steve Shelley's Wu-Tang name is? Steve Shelley.

    word booty.

  2. It is my sincere wish that you were entertained and enlightened throughout.

    I did, thanks a lot for all these reviews, The Eternal is such an amazing album.

  3. "2:51 to 2:54. Three seconds where the best parts go taut against each other. Lee's mournful slide; Kim's yearning voice. It seems almost impossible for such a rapturous concurrence of sounds to exist. That it does is testament to the rewards of the journey."

    i get chills listening to these parts of the song

    great job with the whole discography

  4. amazing work jennbennn. Great to read all these and I have looked forward to each subsequent installment. THANKS!!!!!

  5. What impresses is the stunningly meticulous research and explanations behind each song. The real treat though, is the authors wit, humor and mastery of language (and of course, the love of the music itself).

  6. I have read your reviews for each and every SY album and enjoyed them all. You are quite the excellent, funny and insightful writer. Please keep it up!