The almost unanimous verdict on The Eternal is not only that Sonic Youth sounds more energized than in years, but that the long-running alt-rock icons have come damn close to recapturing the form that made them legends in the first place. You’ll get no argument on that front from guitarist Lee Ranaldo. The man who placed 33rd on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest axemen in history is happy to report that, after some down times, things are not only great in the world of Sonic Youth today, but have in fact been that way for a while.
Reached at a Milwaukee tour stop, Ranaldo admits that the latter part of this decade has begun to give him a new perspective on the group that he’s played in since 1981.
“Starting a couple of years ago,” he says, “I’ve started to have this feeling, I don’t know, that we’re a band that’s been around as long as we have, and yet we can still kind of go out and do shows that we feel are really, really good, and that people seem to think are really, really good. It’s a great feeling to be in that position. To feel like things haven’t diminished over time, and, if anything, have even gotten stronger.”
What might make that doubly gratifying is that he and his bandmates in Sonic Youth—guitarist Thurston Moore, bassist Kim Gordon, drummer Steve Shelley, and newly enlisted hired gun Mark Ibold—have never made things easy for themselves. On the verge of becoming a household name with the early-’90s Lollapalooza-era juggernauts Goo and Dirty, the band suddenly pulled a hard left, re-embracing their inner no-wave experimentalists. Albums like 1995’s Washing Machine and its ’98 follow-up A Thousand Leaves seemed designed to weed out the bandwagon jumpers who wanted them to write another “Kool Thing” or “Bull in the Heather”. By the start of this decade, even the band’s most devoted disciples found themselves challenged by moody, unapologetically introspective outings like Murray Street and Sonic Nurse.
By 2006’s Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth had rediscovered the importance of hooks, but was still no closer to reliving the apocalypse-now roar of its pig-fucked early years. And then something entirely unexpected happened. The ultra-prestigious All Tomorrow’s Parties festival asked the group if it would be interested in performing its groundbreaking 1988 opus Daydream Nation in concert. For a long while, Ranaldo and his bandmates refused, for no other reason than they’ve always been more interested in looking forward than in living on past glories. Eventually, though, Sonic Youth relented in 2007. And when they did, subsequently taking the Daydream Nation tour on the road for a North American mini-tour, they discovered that cranking the amps felt better than they remembered.
“We didn’t go into it willingly,” Ranaldo admits. “The downside of doing that Daydream tour was that it prevented us from working on new material for an extra year. Not really being very much of a nostalgic band, we really didn’t see the point of going out and playing old music like that. So it took a bit of cajoling to get us to do it, but once we did I think that we all really were inspired. In part, I think we were all really amazed at how kick-ass a lot of that material was live, how energetic and balls-to-the-wall it was. We’d forgotten that a little bit.”
As romantic as it might be to imagine Sonic Youth finishing the Daydream Nation tour and then getting right to work on writing the songs that would become The Eternal, that wasn’t the case. The band’s members took an extended hiatus, busying themselves with the various projects—art, writing, soundtracks, and, of course, child-rearing—that now keep them occupied when they aren’t touring. But when they were ready to get back to the business of band, they had no problem recapturing the buzz they’d got from revisiting classics like “Teen Age Riot”, “Silver Rocket”, and “Eric’s Trip”.
“I think that really went a way to inspiring maybe a certain energy level on this record that has been absent for a little while,” Ranaldo says.
The energy level is indeed often red-lined on The Eternal, a record that—just in case there were any doubts—re-establishes Sonic Youth as alt-nation royalty. From the jagged-glory “No Way” to the feedback-flared rocker “Poison Arrow”, the album’s 12 songs serve as a distortion-smeared confirmation that the band’s glory years are nowhere near behind them. You want proof that the group’s fascination with pop culture remains undimmed? Check out “Malibu Gas Station”, wherein Britney Spears joins Karen Carpenter, Charles Manson, and Philip K. Dick on the long list of celebrities who have ended up inspiring the band over 16 studio albums. You want the stun-gun salvos that landed Thurston Moore right beside Ranaldo on that Rolling Stone list of all-time greats? Look no further than “Anti-Orgasm” and “What We Know”, both of which unleash the kind of no-wave guitar violence that not only inspired an entire army of imitators, but reinvented the rules of punk rock.
With The Eternal, Sonic Youth have served notice that one of the greatest bands in the long and storied history of underground America has no intention of slinking off into the New York sunset. Or, for that matter, living on past glories.
Sonic Youth plays Virgin Festival B.C. at Deer Lake Park on Sunday (July 26).