Originally Posted by Johnny American
Man, I'm pretty bummed out by this. On every single Sonic Youth album up to "The Eternal," I think there have been scads of at the very least redeeming moments, even on their weakest overall albums, if not a series of successful, excellent songs that redefined, again and again, a sort of emotional or sonic journey the band could take you on, to new places, without leaving you lost. This album sounds like it was glued together from scraps of their other songs; they break into a bit strongly reminiscent of "Anagrama," or the music drops out like the mid-end of "Sympathy for the Strawberry." I did not know Sonic Youth to make awful songs, except for the occasional clunker ("Pink Steam," "Lights Out," "Hits of Sunshine" all being more boring than terrible).
I have never felt like Sonic Youth really repeated themselves or sounded the same album to album; it always seemed like they were engaged with music culture in a vital and awe-inspiring way, and this is why they've never really (to my ears) sounded like they were just aping their old moves in a mechanical, uninspiring way. I was never entirely bored by a Sonic Youth album before this one. They might be trying out new rhythmic moves and introducing some new oddly tasteless, retrograde 90s or cheesily bluesy (note Lee's songs, sounding oddly like musical and/or sonic rehashes of the mind-numbingly folksy "Lee #2" outtake from Goo) chord progressions on this album, but it could not sound more thoughtlessly executed. And so, some new musicology aside, this album finally sounds like the Sonic Youth that they have been accused of being by critics for years: a band that simply listened to their last couple albums, plus Thurston's last solo record, and then got together and recorded a bunch of songs that Thurston wrote himself, that weren't sussed out or significantly written together as a band, and then were done with business. Except I would have to replace the cliched criticism of them as "this is something they could write in an hour" with a sadly more biting, "this is something an imitator of theirs could write but wouldn't bother."
It's like their soul has dropped out of their music. The music doesn't progress in any kind of musically focused or emotional way that feels like it has any narrative or cohesion to it at all; it sounds like it was written by a random Sonic Youth song generator. "Massage the History" was generated by a code that read "Thurston's Academy sound" + "I Love You Golden Blue," and no other thoughts or emotions. What's worse, the guitar playing and vocal performances are often literally sloppy and awkward, in a way that suggests that they simply don't practice together the way they used to rather than some kind of bursting energy. They used to be a tight band, a New York hammer, and now when they try to rock, it sounds like they haven't been rehearsing as a band very much. The fact that, after a year off from the Daydream Nation sets, they played almost entirely Daydream Nation songs, suggests that indeed, they don't really work together as a unit very often anymore. This is where I think the band is going fatally wrong.
Let me repeat: I have found large aspects of ALL previous albums to love, including the, I think, thoughtlessly rejected "Rather Ripped" which at the very least has good songs on it, if not a lot of passionless noise sections that seem cut and pasted into the song structure like "The Eternal." I remember Lee saying that their songs were like sculpture around the Murray Street era, and up to that point, I believe that. This album sounds like a last-minute collage. It's unprecedently shoddy for me on all levels. I never imagined they could make something so artless. This is awful. I'm so saddened; the Sonics have been one of my favorite bands for so long and this is where they're going? Sloppiness, thoughtlessness and an outright artlessness. I never thought they would make an outright awful collection of pointlessly executed songs.
You know who doesn't want to write "killer tunes," Thurston? A band that is way more than some hack songwriting unit and is instead a blissful collective of identities rendered into a singular musical identity capable of expressing emotions on the level of true artists, rather than just mere songwriters. For evidence, see "Karenology," "I Love You Golden Blue," "Washing Machine," "Wildflower Soul," "Free City Rhymes," "Starfield Road," "Skip Tracer's" beatific ending, "100%," (especially live), the intro to "Tuff Gnarl," the frightening pulse of "Eliminator Jr.," pretty much anything from their entire catalog up to 2004. This band was called Sonic Youth. It appears to be, with the weak aspects of Rather Ripped and the absolute disaster of this album in terms of performances, arrangements and songwriting, a band that is gone, perhaps irrevocably so.
What should they do? Get a real producer that will actually challenge them and push them, like Jim O'Rourke tried to do, like even Butch Vig did in terms of performances, or John Siket's facilitations of their outward explorations on "Washing Machine." Start rehearsing and writing songs together as a unit; don't have Lee figure out his parts over the mail. And for god's sake, don't listen to any kind of bluesy or folk music or retrograde 90s rock music. Listen to interesting stuff that blows your mind; go for Dirty Projectors or Fiery Furnaces or Animal Collective's more adventurous stuff instead of Dinosaur Jr. or Awesome Color or Be Your Own Pet, for crying out loud. And investigate actual new rhythms other than Neu!'s krautrock beat spiced up with some sloppily-on-the-dime stops. Return to the method of working that produced one of the best and longest runs in music history; save your band, guys.