Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rather Exhilarating

The best band in the universe do their Brecht thing with hooks

book cover

Forget "edge," or whatever the edgy are calling it these days. I wish we could forget their non-youth in the bargain, but that wheeze will remain with us--they create from what they know. So let me put it this way: Sonic Youth are the best band in the universe, and if you can't get behind that, that's your problem. They haven't made a bad album since Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo found perfect drummer Steve Shelley in 1985, and (forget Radiohead, forget Wilco) have released more good ones in the past decade than anyone in rock except--this is funny--Neil Young. That definitely includes the brand-new Rather Ripped, a light-seeming, unprecedentedly hooky thing that could prove one of their best. Ignore it to your spiritual detriment.

Sonic Nurse, the band's last record, and last of three with avant-young fifth member Jim O'Rourke, was noticeably direct and tuneful--but not, as it turned out, concise (eight of 10 tracks over five minutes), nor as bracingly aggressive as Goo or Dirty or Daydream Nation. Excellent, but hedged. On Ripped, seven of 12 tracks clock in under four minutes, and three more under five. But the radical departure is the new album's appearance of simplicity, especially regarding what means most with these guys: guitar sound.

Most SY guitars are thick, dirty, doubled, the better to amplify and complicate the weird scales that underlie music you can get lost in and quite often hum. On Rather Ripped, however, guitars are cleanly articulated, given over to tunelets and quasi-arpeggios that cycle through the songs like the good little hooks they are, so much so that when Moore and Ranaldo clash and rumble old-style--two minutes into "Sleepin' Around," on the Ranaldo horror movie "Rats," or the Gordon reverie "Turquoise Boy"--the effect is a reassuring return to normalcy. In other words, the Brechtian distance their dissonances stopped guaranteeing long ago is provided instead by super-catchy mock-pop devices--which eventually, sly devils, prove stranger harmonically than first impressions suggest. The singing, while not even mock pop--by normal standards of vocal intonation and soulful drama, this may be the least gifted great band ever--nudges their recitative tendencies toward a sweet, breathy, sincere counterpart of the guitars. Simple word choices and frequent repetitions make lyrics whose meaning never comes clear seem just out of reach.

All of which I find pretty exhilarating. Of course, you may not. When Murray Street came out in 2002, non-old Amy Phillips notoriously asserted in this very newspaper that since Sonic Youth hadn't made a good album since (1995's) Washing Machine, they should break up already. Who's to say her opinion isn't worth as much as mine? Me? Well, yeah. One concept the non-old have trouble getting their minds around is the difference between taste and judgment. It's fine not to like almost anything, except maybe Al Green. That's taste, yours to do with as you please, critical deployment included. By comparison, judgment requires serious psychological calisthenics. But the fact that objectivity only comes naturally in math doesn't mean it can't be approximated in art.

One technique, which I've just illustrated, is to replace response reports ("boring" and all its self-involved pals, like my "exhilarating" or Phillips's less blatant "dull") with stimulus reports. Here's another instance: Boring or not, 1998's A Thousand Leaves unquestionably marked a turn toward the quietude, ruminative structures, and general fuzz level always implicit in their unresolved tunings and Deadhead-manqué jams--tendencies tersely deployed on 1994's Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and fulsomely indulged on Washing Machine's sandbagging 20-minute "The Diamond Sea." On Leaves, melodies were softer, lyrics kinder, instrumentals more atmospheric, and 2000's NYC Ghosts & Flowers ran away with the freer tendencies of that approach. But ever since then, starting withMurray Street and working through Sonic Nurse and now Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth have reinvested in songform. It's so much more reliable than a 401(k).

Another objectivity aid is consensus, as indicated by record guides, online compendia, and of course critics polls. These establish that Murray Street is well liked, A Thousand Leaves and Sonic Nurse only a little less so. The dud by acclamation (perhaps even the "bad album" whose existence I deny) is NYC Ghosts, which Phillips acknowledges as the true inspiration for her kill-yr-idols hissy fit. Granted an excuse to replay every Sonic Youth album I own, I've found these judgments justifiable. Murray's song-soundscape fusion, which at the time I didn't quite get, sounded strong, while NYC Ghosts, whose meanderings had captivated me in their ambiently environmental way, never fully reconnected. Leaves, long my eccentric fave, proved marginally less entrancing as it sopped up its 74 minutes under lyric-parsing scrutiny. I'm disappointed in myself--I take pride in knowing when I've reconciled taste and judgment, and don't often get records wrong. But I still think the consensus is too extreme--and probably, given the way these things go, reactive, pumping Murray Street to make up for dismissing NYC Ghosts.

Thurston Moore claims Rather Ripped "isn't particularly different from any previous Sonic Youth releases," but that's just his fealty to his band's tunings talking--to a sonic signature that, having pretty much launched an alt-rock generation, is now counted boring by many non-old. Fact is, every Sonic Youth album varies within the broad boundaries of their guitaristic practices. In that capacious context, A Thousand Leaves did mark a turning point, which reflects not just the deterioration that afflicts human bodies as they turn 40 into 50, but also, if you'll pardon some biography, Kim and Thurston's absorption of the parenthood they undertook in 1994: the extra pressure, the lost time, the future that subsumes your own, the messy roommate you love to pieces. Concomitantly, the words of that album, insofar as they make sense, evoke a maturing marriage in a lyrical phase, with Kim's "Female Mechanic Now on Duty" adding essential sex appeal. On Ripped, which shares its name with a legendary Berkeley record store, a similar union may be rather riven, or may not. The non-old clearly aren't obliged to care about these things. But critics of any age ought to recognize that they're there.

Sonic Youth have certainly written lyrics that stick--for my taste, most often about music ("Dirty Boots," "New Hampshire") or politics ("Kool Thing," "Youth Against Fascism"). But where their opposite numbers Yo La Tengo put Ira and Georgia's love life on the public record, Sonic Youth don't seem to sing about Kim and Thurston. It's that Brechtian distance thing again, magnified by vocal deficiencies they play as strengths. Does Kim have a girlfriend on the side? Is her "What a waste/You're so chaste" directed at "Turquoise Boy"? How about Thurston's "Sleepin' Around"? In the end, I don't much care. What matters to me is how these unresolved intimations are allayed and disarmed by the uncharacteristic lightness of music that nevertheless gets strange when you listen hard.

Edges dull; the shock of the new gets old. But great bands keep creating from what they know, and figuring it out as they do. Try to see 'em at CB's Tuesday. They'll come up with something you don't expect, guaranteed.

Village Voice, June 13, 2006