The Oldest Punks That Matter
Sonic Youth offer up another of their "Thousand Leaves."
By Franklin Soults
MAY 11, 1998: This Tuesday Sonic Youth will release their first album in three years, the longest break they've ever taken in a career that, by their count, has spanned 17 years and 14 albums. By my count, A Thousand Leaves (Geffen) is the group's seventh album in a row worth buying at the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Those seven trace an arc that starts with caterwauling, sensationalist art noise, moves up through innovations in heady punk songcraft, then comes back down to cool, keen musicianship balanced against rudimentary tunes and slow burning hunks of trashy chaos. If you rank the seven, you're mostly ranking your own prejudices: like early Miles Davis or Beatles versus late, Sonic Youth have just been trading one strength for another as they catalogue variations in a unique and influential guitar sound that's as unmistakable -- and in a way, almost as prototypical -- as James Brown's grunt or Chuck Berry's one-note lead.
There's something almost anticlimactic about A Thousand Leaves, then, as it continues the downward turn of the arc, moving further away from the headlong rush of straight rock songs toward more open-ended compositions. Its long, loping numbers (average track length: 6:43) signify the usual psycho-sexual mystery and rage through noise and grit instead of riffs, tunes, and speed, reserving the right to rock out mostly for extended stretches of serene reflection. Yet from Steve Shelley's nimble propulsion (he may not be the best drummer in rock, but there's none better) to the airy guitars of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore (sometimes sketching in separate corners, sometimes criss-crossing like dolphins leaping before the prow of a ship) to Kim Gordon's shredded vocals (contre le sexisme with an emotional rigor Simone de Beauvoir would have approved), the album is still of a piece with Sister, the 1987 breakthrough that started the band's extraordinarily fruitful streak of artistic, personal, and commercial self-realization.
"Self-realization" sounds like new-age mush, but I can think of no other way to characterize their achievement. When Sonic Youth started off at the dawn of the Reagan era as protégés of downtown New York composer Glenn Branca, their detuned and tuneless droning seemed like a pale, high-art imitation of punk, a genre whose spirit was claimed more forcefully at the time by the low-art rantings of hardcore bands from Black Flag to Flipper. At the close of the Clinton era, though, the role of these four New Yorkers in keeping punk rock alive as popular culture is incontestable. It's not just because they helped usher in the alternative-rock explosion of the early '90s by being in the right place at the right time. (That is, at a key major label and lobbying for an unproven Northwest trio with a manic-depressive lead singer who surely didn't give a fuck about meeting David Geffen.) It's because, for the entire decade before that, they were busy developing an essential idea that made Nirvana and all their mortal brethren possible -- namely, the idea that you could still create new sounds in rock and roll without abandoning the populist punch of its tried and true structures.
It may seem like a stupendously obvious point in today's alterna-rock aftermath, yet almost every other innovative guitar band of the '80s ran into some kind of glass ceiling trying to make the old rock structures give up something new and lasting (thanks for the memories, Hsker D), or they just gave up on the earnest idea of "rock" altogether (thanks for nothing, Pussy Galore). Sonic Youth were as suspicious of rock as the next set of Danceteria bohemians, yet as they accrued musical chops and discovered the depths of their talents, the alien grate of their high-art tuning system allowed them to pick up the melodic fundamentals they once abjured without compromising their avant-garde commitment to formal distance and experimentation. In the big picture, this trick freed them from the dead weight of rock history while letting them fulfill its promise of pop renewal. From below, the glass ceiling seemed impenetrable; from above, Sonic Youth were able to push their fingers through as if it were plastic wrap.
If that isn't self-realization, I don't know what is. It not only takes punk's DIY ethos to a whole new level, it's a larger-than-life example of four Americans claiming their arrogant birthright to invent themselves as they please. Before you go paint your mohawk red, white, and blue, however, note that Sonic Youth have spent the mid to late '90s showing how punk's ideal of self-creation differs radically from that American dream of self-invention. The distinction isn't as subtle as my makeshift terminology might make it seem: it's the difference between learning to live within limits and the hubris of wanting it all and inexorably failing.
At one level, of course, the band already have it all. Sporting their own studio, recording label, and personal line of affordable punk wear, they've long since joined the rock-star bourgeoisie that their friend and pioneering riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna once chided them for being part of. And not only are they rock stars, they're good-guy rock stars. By the time they headlined the legendary Lollapalooza tour of 1994, they were being universally hailed as the grandparents of an entire cultural movement. Recently, Time magazine went further into the mothballs, praising A Thousand Leaves for maintaining the band's unassuming consistency and upstanding ethics ("Sonic Youth doesn't embrace the swagger and sexual bravado of mainstream rock"). Even the band themselves have joined into the joke: in an official press release, Thurston Moore cracks, "The new album's title comes from the fact that we're gonna stop after 1000 albums."
Yet their institutionalization goes deeper than that, as I was reminded this past March at the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin, where Sonic Youth performed a rousing set of songs from the still-unreleased album. Even though the crowd was hearing it all for the first time, fans of both sexes, all ages, and a wide variety of sartorial tastes responded to each subtle, off-the-path invention with applause and hoots, demonstrating an acuity that would have been unimaginable had they not been studying Sonic Youth's musicology for years.
And it's not only the fans who get it. Later that evening I hooked up with some musician friends and their partners who shared an interest in swing and pre-Elvis country. When I mentioned where I'd been earlier, the youngest member of the group had chipped in with her opinion: "Call me a philistine, but I haven't really liked them since they stopped making pop hits." Thinking she might be confusing Sonic Youth with another band, I asked her which "pop hits" she meant. "You know," she responded with an understandable touch of defensiveness, 'Teenage Riot,' 'Kool Thing,' like that."
Now as brazen, uplifting, and driven as these numbers were in their day, they were still as far from pop as you could get with catchy beats and solid hooks. But to a slightly younger generation coming of age in a world that has been indelibly reshaped by those songs, pop is exactly what they are. And a pop band is never what Sonic Youth have wanted to be.
I suppose that, as much as anything, is why the band opted out of their uneasy pact with the alterna-rock mainstream even as they were being hoisted on its shoulders. In 1994, the year they headlined Lollapalooza, Sonic Youth put out Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, a confounding CD that broke with their quest for the cup. For some of us, it seemed like a letdown -- hadn't they made this kind of ugly, low-gear-grinding noise before? Yes, but never at this level of execution or invention. Hadn't Kim Gordon been laying out these same complaints forever? Yes, and male, white, corporate oppression is still intractable. It took months before those self-evident answers cohered -- it was like learning to hear Mingus Ah Um or something.
After that A Thousand Leaves comes easy, even though it contains some of their most abstract music yet. As is their wont, the group's married co-leaders split the ugly and beatific stuff along reverse gender lines. Thurston Moore's numbers are mostly long tone poems with melodies that lilt like a slow ocean swell, almost as if they were lullabies. That's a feature Lee Ranaldo plays on in his two tensile, haunting pieces about his favorite fare: sex, winter, and hints of murder. Bracing it all up are Kim Gordon's frayed, desperate wails against men who take her gender for granted, one spacy/scary ("Heather Angel"), one spoken-word ("Contre Le Sexisme"), the others rocking with the rawest of materials ("The Ineffable Me," "Female Mechanic Now on Duty" -- worth it for the title alone).
In time, it almost all finds its mark, proving again that Sonic Youth made the right decision when they took their music off the alterna-rock bandwagon just before that vehicle broke down under the weight of its corporate sponsor's ambitions. There's a cost to the decision, of course, but it's not as high as the one on the road not taken. That they knew this beforehand doesn't make the bandmembers geniuses, it just proves the depth of their instinctive commitment to punk. Again, it's self-creation over self-invention: the idea of exploration for exploration's sake instead of the constant, conscious attempt to top one's previous exploits and grab a larger audience, more of the gold, like a burned-out Mark Twain, a drugged-up Elvis, a cynical Rolling Stones (honorary Americans if ever there were any).
In the ultimate irony, it makes Sonic Youth -- the Oldest Punks That Matter --
the mirror image of the Grateful Dead: until the bitter end proud just to be
Old And In The Way. Aside from Workingman's Dead, I could never hear the
Dead's reputed magic, and yet the parallels between the two group's communal
vision and commitment to long guitar trips are too strong to deny. You can hear
that on the Dead's four-hour, three-CD Dozin at the Knick, supposedly a
definitive late-period live set. It isn't half as good as its supporters claim
(the keyboard player stinks up everything he touches, for starters) but a
number like Jerry Garcia's "Row Jimmy" lays out a compelling gospel in its sad,
loping chorus: "You just row, Jimmy, row/Gonna get there?/I don't know." Or as
Thurston Moore said in Austin after debuting "Hits of Sunshine," his dreamy and
rather lovely tribute to Allen Ginsberg from A Thousand Leaves, "I guess
I'll work on it." What else is life for?
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