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The Noise of Middle Age

Advance word on Sonic Youth’s latest record The Eternal was mixed. Some listeners praised it for picking up where its predecessor Rather Ripped left off, disciplining the band’s tendency for extended improvisation in single-length, propulsive tracks that pay sufficient tribute to rock’s traditional verse-chorus-verse structure without sounding too pop. Some, noting the same continuity, lamented the band’s aesthetic retrenchment, as if the experiments with form that made their music special had been abandoned for commercial reasons. And some notable critics, like Wire editor Mark Fisher, who writes under the name “k-punk,” took the opportunity to question the notion that the band was ever that innovative to begin with.

The problem,” Fisher declared, is not that Sonic Youth failed to be the sort of “self-destructive fuck-ups” that play a central role in rock history, so much as that they seem to be so pathologically well-adjusted that the music doesn’t appear to be performing any kind of sublimatory function for them. It isn’t that they ‘don’t mean it’ so much as they only mean it.” In other words, the band’s artistic moves have always been too calculating to seem like the expression of true feeling. “There is no sense, even in the early work as far as this listener is concerned, that the music is drawing on any unconscious material.

As even staunch defenders of Sonic Youth will attest – and I count myself among the staunchest – there is considerable truth in this critique. In live performance, the band excels at building to forceful crescendos without ever seeming to peak personally. Almost preternaturally relaxed on stage, they manage the musical ebb and flow with the insouciance of technicians who have turned the most challenging work into a routine that doesn’t require them to break a sweat. And their records reflect the same eerie calm, even when turned up to a window-rattling volume.

If anything, The Eternal takes this sense of coolly going through the motions to a new extreme, which explains the mixed reception it has been receiving. Although I settled easily into its familiar patterns on my first listen, I still haven’t shaken the sense that they could have done more. At the same time, though, the music conjures the distressed sheen that the band’s fans love. The songs run together, but that’s nothing new. Indeed, it’s the album’s “nothing new” air that makes it both satisfying and troubling. Sonic Youth is happy to give you what you expect from them, whether you have played every one of their records so many times that they feel like bodily appendages or whether you’re coming to their music for the very first time, because you’ve heard that they are a band you simply have to experience in the course of your aesthetic education.

Although Fisher makes it clear that he doesn’t think highly of the band’s music, he acknowledges the unique place they have occupied in the past twenty-five years of rock history. It seems to me that Sonic Youth’s very long career has been based almost exclusively on their being ‘people of good taste’ – curators, in other words, who can turn a notionally ignorant audience on to cool stuff.”  While this assessment is intended as a negative judgement of the band’s own music, certainly, it also provides a way of understanding the influence it can have on receptive listeners.

I didn’t hear Sonic Youth until 1988, when I was freshman at UC Berkeley.  I was browsing in Rasputin’s Records on Telegraph Avenue when I noticed that the in-store stereo was playing tones that sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Intrigued, I listened closer. Although I’d spent my teenage years thoroughly caught up in the psychedelic revival underway at the time, playing Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane when my classmates were fixated on Van Halen, I still struggled to find my way through the record’s noisy passages. They made me feel as if I’d lost my balance. But this sense of disorientation was one that I welcomed, because it was set to bass and drums purposeful enough to lead me through the sonic labyrinth. More bluntly, even though the music was radical by my standards, it still rocked in a way that made sense to someone who thought that John Mellencamp’s Scarecrow was a masterpiece.

I was sufficiently impressed by the music coming over the loudspeakers to overcome my fear of appearing out-of-touch and ask the man working the register the name of the record. “Daydream Nation,” he muttered with more than a hint of scorn. “That’s the band name?” I inquired sheepishly. “No, no,” he responded, his eyes starting to roll upward, “The band is Sonic Youth!” As upsetting as this interaction was for me – no one likes to be identified as ignorant – I nevertheless went to find the CD in the racks and then purchased it immediately. I knew that this was one opportunity I couldn’t afford to pass up.

Predictably, when I later told my more cosmopolitan acquaintances of my remarkable discovery, they looked non-plussed. I thought I’d been lucky enough to learn of obscure music with the capacity to change one’s consciousness overnight, like mind-altering drugs without the attendant consequences. But, even if they weren’t familiar with Sonic Youth, they had all heard of them. Once again I had the awkward sensation of having arrived at a party a day late, stupidly holding a six-pack whose superfluousness was made clear by the empties stacked by the door. In this case, though, I didn’t mind. The interactions I had with Daydream Nation –  it really did feel like I’d become acquainted with a new person, incredibly knowledgeable yet willing to teach me without making fun of me – were so rich that I was willing to put up with the shame of growing up far from the centers of cool.

“Malibu Gas Station” is one of the least successful songs on the new album, adhering so closely to formula that listening to it has repeatedly stopped me short, convinced I had somehow entered an artist-specific shuffle mode offering up a number from the band’s back catalogue. Although it will never be a favorite, however, I find it impossible to hear with unpleasure. The memories of what Sonic Youth did for me two decades ago are too strong. Call it reasonable gratitude or excessive fidelity, I know that listening for The Eternal’s flaws instead of its strengths would be to reject myself as much as the band.

I suspect that many of Sonic Youth’s fans feel similarly. The band falls squarely into the category of artists who have the special power to serve as a “first time” for their audience. We tend to be sentimental about those turning points in our lives when our worldview is transformed, even if they constitute a loss of innocence. Developing “good taste” in the musical sense that Fisher means forsaking, to some extent, the capacity to listen without measuring one’s own pleasure against the pleasure of others. But what I learned from Daydream Nation wasn’t just to sort the “good” from the “bad” in a more sophisticated, stylish way. As I listened to the album for weeks on end, I also learned to immerse myself in the experience of music in a manner antithetical to the passing of critical judgment.

The Eternal does not introduce any major innovations in Sonic Youth’s repertoire. The most noteworthy change to my ears is the more sinewy bottom end introduced by new bassist Mark Ibold’s playing, especially on the pleasingly pared down “What We Know.” But it’s not like founding member Kim Gordon was a slouch on bass. The guitar parts somehow sound both grittier and more focused during the verse-chorus-verse portions of songs than has typically been the case on their recent records. And the noisy interludes that interrupt most tracks, those bridges to nowhere for which the band is famous, feel uncharacteristically goal-oriented. Despite the fact that this is no ground-breaking album, however, it still manages to do most of the same things that Daydream Nation did. I am fairly certain, that had I been able to hear The Eternal at Rasputin’s, it would have had almost as powerful an effect on me as its much-lauded predecessor.

Maybe the best way to think about this new record, as well as Sonic Youth overall, is to reconceptualize the curatorial dimension of their work that Fisher smartly singles out. Yes, they have done an enormous amount to introduce worthy younger artists to new audiences, including notables such as Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, Pavement, Bikini Kill that they brought on tour with them. Thurston Moore, in particular, has made a point of seeking out new music and mentioning it in the course of the generous interviews he gives to publications big and small alike. But the band’s support of what Fisher terms “good taste,” isn’t simply a matter of putting their imprimatur on the music of others.

Sonic Youth have made a point of trying to collapse the divide between mass culture and the traditional art world as well, showcasing notable visual artists such as Gerhard Richter, Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Jeff Wall on album covers. While the gallery-hopping set might regard this as a ham-handed exercise, intended as much to benefit the band – conferring legitimacy to its choice of mediumas to benefit those visual artists, the fact remains that this move actually did introduce many fans to their work and, more importantly, inspired some of them to reflect on the relationship between different means of cultural expression. For better or worse – and I would definitely opt for better – Sonic Youth has played an important role in the reorganization of the arts that has occurred during the postmodern era. The elevation of comic books, genre fiction and, of course, popular music to the status – potentially, anyway – of serious” art and the concomitant weakening of the distinction between “high” and low” culture that prevailed throughout much of the twentieth century has resulted in a situation where the definition of “curator” itself has undergone a massive overhaul. While museum curators still exist, they have do-it-yourself competition that would once have been unthinkable.

Even if we factor Sonic Youth’s interest in bridging the gap between different media into account, however, we are still thinking of their curatorial work in terms of content. From my perspective, as someone who vividly remembers the impact that listening to their music had on my mind, the most interesting aspect of their body of work is the way it simulates a curatorial function at the level of form. The detachment the band’s members project with regard to their craft, that sense that they are technicians managing a flow, rather than embodying the stereotype of the tortured artist handed down to us from Romanticism, is doubled in the music itself, which invites listeners to imaginatively stroll down its passages at their leisure rather than forcing them to a particular destination.

Sonic Youth has certainly supported artists who used their music to vent their passions, from Kurt Cobain to Johnny Thunders, whose photograph is featured on The Eternal’s sleeve. But their greatest achievement has been to create music that avoids the sort of identification that such individuals elicit without becoming so cerebral that it denies us the pleasures of rocking out. Indeed, we could conceive of Sonic Youth’s whole project as an attempt to demonstrate that true ecstasy comes, not by living our lives through others, but by seeing how we can live differently as ourselves. The Eternal may not be their best album, but still forcefully reminds us of what their music can do for us if we open our minds to its mind-altering power.

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