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Random Album Review: Sonic Youth - The Eternal

When you've spent a quarter century reinventing rock music, altering the landscape not only for yourself, but for pretty much every band to come after, releasing a new album can be a tricky affair. It's not just a matter of increased expectations -- of course everyone expects their musical gods to put out good albums. The much more troubling prospect is the question, where do we go from here?   

Sonic Youth started out making music that many people couldn't even recognize as such. Now, some 25 years later, the sounds they invented and the musical worldview they fostered have come to pretty well define the many divergent streams of what we think of as underground or indie music. Fortunately for Sonic Youth, what they did, and what they do, represents such a sea change from the status quo that all of their influence constitute mere ripples out from their epicenter.  

The Eternal may well be one of Sonic Youth's most accessible and nakedly enjoyable albums to date. At the same time, it also sees the band returning with full force to some of its earliest sonic explorations. In a way, The Eternal listens like a greatest hits album, albeit one composed entirely of new songs.

"Sacred Trickster" opens the album amid clanging guitars, like a pair of chiming clocks whose timing and tonality are just slightly out of sync with each-other. The peals converge slowly but insistently, leading the full band into the song in a rush of momentum, the guitars keeping just enough dissonance for the song to have a vaguely careening feel to it. 

Keeping the push and pull, the band converges periodically throughout the song, either with the clangorous bonging repurposed as paired harmonics, only to split apart again a second later. Kim Gordon's vocals, both wistful and slightly grating, ply typically opaque lyrics that are at once vaguely mystical ("I wish I could be / music on a tree") and clearly autobiographical ("What's it like to be a girl in a band / I don't quite understand"), both promulgating and destroying the concept of musician as object of worship.

"Anti-Orgasm" starts out with conflict, its edgy title standing in stark contrast to the song's straightforward bluesy opening.  Of course, that changes just a few seconds in when the blues progression trades off for scratchy, scattershot guitar with a light dusting of flanger. spaciness. The blues riff jumps back in shortly, going on to play counterpoint with the guitar histrionics through the balance of the song.

In the midst of this, the band intersperses vaguely post-punk verses, pairing disjointed guitar and nimble basslines with a distorted disco beat and monotone call and response vocals decrying the sex act even while Kim Gordon's guttural exhortations mirror it sonically. The song closes with a tribal beat pounded out on floor tom while surf styled guitars bend and weave, adding a trippy, cosmic feel.  It's like the history of Sonic Youth rolled into one song.

After all the sonic trickery and difficult structure of the first two songs, "Antenna" feels almost like a radio-ready indie-pop track, falling somewhere in between proto-shoegaze (think "Shadow of a Doubt" from EVOL) and down-tempo power-pop reminiscent of the poppier moments from Goo. All in all, this track is understated and lovely, with a fairly straightforward verse-chorus structure and recognizable chord changes.

"What We Know" anchors the middle of the album with a forward, propulsive bass-line provided by former Pavement four-stringer Mark Ibold (who one can only imagine is giddy at the opportunity to play with the group likely to be counted as the single greatest influence on his own musical trajectory).

"Calming the Snake" again leans heavily on Ibold's bass thump, but washes over it with waves of caustic feedback before unraveling into a no-wave explosion of dissonant guitars and more vaguely grating vocals courtesy of Kim Gordon.  As with most of the album, though, the more strenuously difficult passages are mirrored by moments of pop-classicism - a clean guitar phrase here, a cool, chiming vamp there.

"Malibu Gas Station" starts off with sparse guitar, then brings in a tight, driving beat and awkwardly jazzy chord changes layered with Gordon's intense vocals.  Somehow, the melange feels like a perverted surf track, like the bastard child of The Mamas and the Papas and Pixies.  Here, the golden notion of California as spiritual promised land is turned on its head, reflecting instead the modern Sodom and Glamorah of teen-trash glitterati hijinks in lines like "What a cross to bear / oops! no underwear." The sentiment is summed up in the closing lines, "California magic / a town so tragic." Sung by Kim Gordon, herself a Golden State native, the lyrics sound particularly despondent.

The album closes with an ode to Sonic Youth's softer side, more often seen in their descendants (think Yo La Tengo, etc) than in their own music.  Whether most listeners will recognize "Massage the History", with its quiet improvisations and gently circuitous passages, as a distinctly Sonic Youth track is dubious, but for those familiar with the introspective side of the band (1998's A Thousand Leaves), this track is about as good as it gets.  Taken as the coda to an album which itself sums up the many faces of a seminal band, perhaps this is a self-conscious nod to the band's own pedigree and public persona; an appeal to re-imagine the band that re-imagined everything.

-- Nicholas L. Hall

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