So many reviews of The Eternal open with the details of Sonic Youth‘s indie-ness on major labels, and their new return to real indie-dom. But the real change seems to be that there isn’t much of a change to speak of. The legendarily experimental foursome (fivesome if you count Mark Ibold, formerly of Pavement and Free Kitten) had consistently twisted and turned in new and unexpected directions. And when early reports of the new Youth record had Thurston Moore discussing the influence of heavy metal on the lyrical content, it seemed like the tip of a whole new and exciting iceberg. But, for better and for worse, The Eternal has moments that sound like they were plucked from a few of the band’s recent catalog and assembled rather than created anew.
That being said, Sonic Youth has always had their trademark sounds and attitudes; one could always tell a Moore feedback blast, a Lee Ranaldo obtuse vocal, a sneering Kim Gordon. But, albums, or occasionally groupings of albums, would throw a new curveball into the mix.
1982’s self-titled debut established the post-punk sound, but they were still stuck in the seemingly laughable standard tuning. 1985’s Bad Moon Rising cemented their love of modern art, their obsessions with weird America and the macabre. 1988 saw the release of the Library of Congress approved Daydream Nation. Fast forward through some weirdo experimentation (TV Shit, anyone? The SYR recordings?), some ambient-ish leaning and a few other 100 developments and you’ll get to the group’s recent resurrection of their ability/desire to write rock songs.
Opening track “Sacred Trickster” is a prime example of this. It’s a two-minute punch and run, full of clanging, 3rd bridge guitar and Gordon howling in the most charming way that a person can howl. It’s a swift kick in the gut, something along the lines of “100%” if it were revved up on Red Bull and/or cocaine. This comes to a quick SY stop in “Anti-Orgasm”, which chugs along on a stuttering drum beat and dueling grunts, before it all gets swallowed up into a goopy black hole.
In another deftly Sonic Youth move, the next track is dedicated to NYC beat poet Gregory Corso. “Leaky Lifeboat” is nice. Honestly. Much like Rather Ripped‘s “Do You Believe in Rapture?”, the band keeps things clattered, sharp and snappy. “Antenna” takes the opposite course; a sludgy, sing-a-long melody in the middle of a puddle of bubble and scrape. “What We Know” is another pop ripper, all big guitar and stomp.
Again, it all comes down to Sonic Youth doing what they do best, but not a whole lot else. Throughout the album, Steve Shelley remains largely in the background, but a dominating, powerful background presence, never letting a moment or a beat falter. Gordon goes out of her mind in “Calming the Snake”. Thurston Moore is his eternally cool self on the wobbly sort-of-afraid-of-love song “Poison Arrow”.
But where are the new ideas? Is the idea of the SYR recordings to have a place to let new ideas develop, rather than folding them into the rock music they put out for the “normals”? Or is that what all of Thurston and Lee’s crazy prepared piano/improv guitar shows are for? Everyone knows the dudes are prodigious writers/performers/improvisers/musicians, but someone just picking up the last couple of records, without any other knowledge of the band, might think they’re (GASP) normal. An excellent normal band, but a normal band nonetheless.