Sonic Youth — The Eternal (2009)

At this point, you are either hip to what the Youth are puttin’ down or you couldn’t be arsed. Love ’em or hate ’em, you have to give them props for following their own collective muse for longer than a quarter of a century now. Remember when we were worried that their jump to a major label meant that Sonic Youth had “sold out?” Ha! Good times.

For what it’s worth, the band’s sojourn in the beige carpeted wilderness has finally come to an end, and they seem to have escaped unscathed. Maybe that’s because DGC/Geffen/CompuglobalHypermegacorp never really knew what to do with the band except leave them alone to make consistently engaging records.

Which brings us to The Eternal, the new album released on Matador, home to fellow squall merchants/musical geniuses, Mission of Burma. With the first atonal clarion clang of Sacred Trickster, the band announces a new-found drive and celebration of independence. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the hazy, bucolic cruise through their Own Private Connecticut over the last decade, but I have to admit that from Diamond Sea, the closing track on 1995’s Washing Machine, through Do You Believe in Rapture? on 2006’s Rather Ripped, the serene, coolly psychedelic jams aren’t the ones I reach for when I want to drive like a lunatic or jump around the house scaring the animals.

With former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold onboard, replacing multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke who left in 2005, the band sounds more focused, and hungrier than they have in a decade. Those of us lucky enough to catch the epic Daydream Nation shows in 2007 caught a preview of the new lineup that seems to have put a burr back under their saddle.

Trickster kicks off the album with a Kim Gordon vocal that calls to mind the concisely-fractured indie rock of ’90s milestone albums Dirty and Goo. Gordon’s songs have long been highlights of the sets that contain them; unfortunately, her compositions have been few and far between the last few records. As usual, she cuts straight through the bullshit and nails those with no imagination to rise above the cliché, whether in dealing with sexual politics or the business of rocking so hard for so long. What’s it like to be a girl in band? / I don’t quite understand / That’s so quaint to hear / I feel so free, my dear

As the last bit of heavy reverb dies away, Thurston Moore jumps in with a classic rock riff to announce a duet with his wife. Anti-Orgasm flips the meme of sex as violence on its head as it nihilistically proclaims that Anti-war / is anti-orgasm. Sonic Youth has the vortex of guitars sound down by now, but rarely in recent years has it sounded so vital. Around the two-minute mark, Ibod’s bass starts a counterpoint riff that adds a new dimension to the usual expanse of sounds. At three-and-a-half minutes, the band stretches out into a bit of what they have taken away from their flirtation as the punk rock Grateful Dead before Ibod’s figure reappears and brings the whole beautiful mess to a close.

Just as you think that they may be back to drifting however, Lee Renaldo’s What We Know kicks the paranoia up a notch and drives it home with a relentless riff recalling the band’s hardcore past. This strategy is also used to great effect on Poison Arrow, as percussive chordal stabs close out the track.

According to Billboard, The Eternal sold 19,262 copies in its first week and is currently 16th on the Top Digital Album chart. What does that mean in this post-everything marketplace of ideas? Probably nothing—but it could be that Sonic Youth is finally spending some of that famous indie cred. The mandate is rock.


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