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Track-By-Track

Sonic Youth's New Album The Eternal Reviewed Track-By-Track
The Quietus , April 22nd, 2009 10:46

Sacred Trickster

Sonic Youth Say: Out-of-the gate hardcore matinee track with Kim singing salutes to French painter Yves Klein and Western Massachusetts noise artist Noise Nomads.

John says: Here it comes now. HERE IT COMES NOW! Four slightly wrong notes in exactly the right order. Turn on the distortion pedal now! Regress your heavy metal. Strip all the Yngwie Malmsteen away. Play the chugga chugga like a 14-year-old full of dumb and cum. They're rocking now. People were so pleased with Sonic Youth for releasing a pop album three years ago (Rather Ripped) that no one stopped and said: "Yeah, this is great, and 'Incinerate' and 'Do You Believe In The Rapture?' are up there with the best but there are too many songs like 'Rats' and 'The Neutral' just hanging around getting in the way." Well, fuck that. This sounds like 'Cinerella's Big Score' and lasts for 131 seconds.

Luke says: "I want you to levitate me" is the first line on The Eternal, sung by Kim Gordon in her distinctively pained voice. You can bottle this sound and flog at as Eaue D'Youth, and this is a perfect, two-minute-and-eleven second exercise in precision popcraft. It's the little tricks and flourishes that give this pace - the ching-ching of neck strings being hit and Gordon's "uh huh, uh huh". It's sprightly, lively, and sparse, a brilliant start.

Anti-Orgasm

Sonic Youth say: Inspired by the story of Berlin 60s model/activist Uschi Obermeier and the gang at Kommune 1. Free love, dominance and submission, and other political states-of-confusion.

John says: Do you hear that high pitched dampened chord, right hand barring loosely up and down the frets? The random scree of screech tumbling from your speakers? That is the sound of Ross Robinson grinding his teeth until they shatter and fall out of his fat fucking head. Everything about Sonic Youth is upside down and inside out. The stupider Sonic Youth get the more intelligent the noise they produce. They more lackadaisical they are the more absorbing the album. These lyrics are preposterous but brilliant: "Mission control to brain police / Free love key energy / penetration destroys the body / violation of a cosmic body / Do you understand the problem? / Anti-war is anti-orgasm/ UH! UH! UH! UH! UH!" Your band couldn't get away with writing daft dilettantish hipster lyrics like this. But then, your band is not Sonic Youth.

Luke says: What's this? A disco beat? Gracious. And the sound of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon making rather conjugal grunts is about as close as we're likely to get to know about how their marital life impacts on Sonic Youth. Again, it's the dynamics within the track that make 'Anti-Orgasm' work so well. Whereas on some of their recent albums Sonic Youth have become becalmed in a pleasant enough, yet noodling verdant backwater, there's a lot more focus here. The post-coital smoke, for example, is a well thought-out affair, a relaxed and thoughtful winding down via intricate guitar eddies and hollow, echoing effects.

Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)

Sonic Youth say: The NYC beat poet Gregory Corso once referred life on Earth as a leaky lifeboat. This tune expounds on this rumination

Dampened harmonics and gentle melodiousness in the style of 'Do You Believe In Rapture?' and the internal rhyme of 'freaky' and 'leaky'. Again, you pray for SY to do more of this "la la la la" stuff in the same way you pray for other bands to cease doing it so much.

Luke says: Again, there's a lot of life to this track. It feels ragged and carefree, piston cymbals and the guitars all chattering to themselves in different corners of the room.

Antenna

Sonic Youth say: Melodious ode to fleeting fantasy and unresolved desire with the sound of two analogue radios communicating the emotional action.

John says: The drumming is great on this album. No snares. Lots of toms. Played with maracas and big fluffy pounders. They may or may not be played with large inflatable hammers. Steve Shelley sounds like he's reliving Daydream Nation in half time. Reliving the half-life of Daydream Nation, half a life-time ago. All of these songs are summer songs. Heat haze and distant birdsong. This is the summer of sick, drug rock. Sonic Youth, The Horrors and Omar Rodriguez Lopez. And hopefully Grinderman as well. The drumming is great on this album. Some of it sounds a bit like Neu! But that's ok because Sonic Youth have the right sort of haircuts to be into Neu!

Luke says: There's also that scraping echo from the pregnant pause in 'Bull In The Heather' and, like that song, this is dynamically superb. Although it's the second longest track here at 6:13, it never gets bogged down. I've always felt that the Washing Machine side of Sonic Youth, and their penchant for playing mid-paced gigs that are essentially An Exploration Of A Theme On 'The Diamond Sea' show the band at their least interesting. They're far better at writing pop songs, or delicate and thoughtful tracks like this. Thurston Moore's vocals sit atop a sumptuous cushion of green smoke; as John says this is a very summery record. Indeed, despite having a combined age of well over 200, this has a very adolescent feel, the warm glow of young long distance love and future dreams... but the romantic delusions of tender years end in the sudden flourish of metallic guitar that brings the track to a close, like a hastily written 'dear John'.

What We Know

Sonic Youth say: Charging forth with a riff in reference to Sonics Rendezvous Band, Lee sings a triptych to identity and unity.

John says: I had a dream last night of Sonic Youth watching the telly. Thurston, Kim and Coco watching America's Got Talent, piles of Freaks and Geeks DVDs on the floor and a poster of Stone Cold Steve Austin on the back of the door. All Lee's books by EM Cioran given away to the charity shop and an X-Box Live with Virtua Tennis 3 sits in front of the box. Steve Shelley reading Barbara Cartland. Mark Ibold eating pop tarts. I had a dream my friend of Sonic Youth putting their brains in neutral (or economy at least) and recording a rock record. Lazy feedback. Guitars that sound like big brass bells breaking. They don't sound like early U2 anymore, like they did for a bit on the last album. Like our friend Manish says: "They're best when they're cornball." What are corn balls when they're at home? Like Whatsits but round? Like cheese footballs?

Luke says: And speaking of Sonic Youth writing pop songs, this is one of the best they're written in a long time. They're unified, stomping - again, Steve Shelley's drums are superb here. You could almost imagine Franz Ferdinand giving up a wing of their Scots castle to write this. "Bound to give it heart and soul... that's what we know about us," sings Lee Ronaldo as the track crunches to a close. Thus far, this is exactly what Sonic Youth have done.

Calming The Snake

Sonic Youth say: One of the first tracks written, musical references to the Dead C, the MC5 and Neu. Kim musing on visions of Death in painting.

John says: They built a monorail linking Idlewild to Manhattan in 2002. An expressway to getting out of your skull. It towered over Gotham but a fatal accident meant it ran pretty much empty for the first few months of 2003. Ride the snake, said fat Jim. No pain, no gain, said Revolting Cocks. What does AirTrain sound like? I don't know. I was always too afraid to get on it. Ride the Klaus Dinger highway baby. Kim Gordon sounds deranged. Nights out in Manhattan. A Piet Mondrian grid, seen from the air. Sleek lines. Brake light red. Street light yellow. White Light. White Heat.

Luke says: Sonic Youth go goth! Well, at least on the reverb on Gordon's vocals "come on down, down to the river... I want to hear you quiver". What's this, an anti-'Where The Wild Roses Grow'? "Ughhh uhhh oooooh" she groans. Interestingly, this sounds like a lot of the other tracks here, but it's the vocals are what provide the difference, an echoy small-venue feel that harks back to their no wave roots. It's good to hear them letting themselves go in this way, treating the voice as an instrument more so than they've done in the recent past.

Poison Arrow

Sonic Youth say: Dedicated to the lust groove of Kevin Ayers where thoughts of love as pretty poison rejoice in surrealist deliverance.

John says: Unfortunately not a cover version of the Trevor Horn produced ABC song of the same name. The jollity of 'Total Trash' infects these grooves. Don't you think that Sonic Youth sound best when they give the illusion that you too could play music like this if you got together with your mates and just laid it down? It's an illusion but it's a good one. It's that NYC lineage of rock that includes Velvet Underground and Television and Modern Lovers but started originally with George Formby and ended up with The Wedding Present.

Luke says: More sturdy tom-heavy drumming from Shelley and an interesting, wobbly vocal from Moore. Best of all is the chorus, delivered pretty much entirely by vocals- there's almost a 'shoop shoop-ing' feel to the delivery of the line "who shot the poison arrow?" Interestingly, those guitars are way down in the mix, a subtle monochrome fizz. To me, this is also a distance cousin of the Mary Chain. Again, there's great economy at play here and the track gasps and splutters its way to an efficient stop. The Eternal shows Sonic Youth really nailing their conclusions.

Malibu Gas Station

Sonic Youth say: An ode to the flash moment of the camera as you knowingly step from your SUV sans panties.

John says: Starts off all dreary and cod serious, like goths on holiday visiting a 'notable' graveyard from a specialist guide book but then settles into another road trip groove. I had another dream about Sonic Youth, sitting next to a broken down car, forty miles outside of Houston's city limits waiting for a breakdown truck. Playing chess in the sunshine. I've always had a stomach of concrete but once in the 80s I was sick on a girl's feet after drinking two bottles of Malibu. In the extremely unlikely event that she's reading: I'm sorry about that. The second summer of sick, drugged up rock. When was the first one? I don't know. If you can remember it, you weren't there. It's like the 60s. Except it was probably in 1987.

Luke says: You could say this is the most non-descript track on The Eternal, but it's actually got a terrific progression that reveals itself on repeated listens. Gordon's whispered vocals tease guitars into tumescence and eventual rambunctious collapse. They're really keeping the pace up throughout here.

Thunderclap (For Bobby Pryn)

Sonic Youth say: Flashing back to a wishful existence in the original Masque basement on N. Cherokee in Hollywood, crashing through lawns and garbage cans en route to the Canterbury/Disgraceland to jump up and down on beds with Helen Killer, Mary Rat and Trudi.

John says: Bobby Pyn is Darby Crash who, alongside Pat Smear, was in the Germs. This doesn't sound like the Germs. It sounds like every other song on this album. And 'Mary Christ'. Which is ace.

Luke says: As John mentioned at earlier, bands going "hey hey" "woaha woah" and "uh uh uh uh" can often suggest a paucity of lyrical ideas. In fact, it's been something of a constant in British landfill indie of the past couple of years, as the dilettantish purveyor of post punk skiffle are clearly incapable of writing lyrics. On the other hand, interestingly, part of the reason that the dynamics of The Eternal works so well is because Sonic Youth use the utterances as a sort of dynamic gear shift. Plus, Sonic Youth can write lyrics, here seeming to be a return to their fascination with cultish killers - Heaven's Gate gets a look in. The line "rapacious gardens of female distinction" rules, but not as much as the squealing crescendo, and pugnacious "UGH" that's the full-stop.

No Way

Sonic Youth say: First song written for the album, with a nod to The Wipers of Portland, Oregon. A confrontation with the devil in his guise of temptation and staking a distinct place amongst the black legions.

John says: Fuck you David Geffen! I'll tidy my room when I feel like it!

Luke says: By now, Sonic Youth are really in their stride. In fact, this track feels so effortless it's hard to believe it's the first one written. Perhaps it was the rub on the bottle that's let the genie of the The Eternal escape. Certainly think of the kernel from which a terrific album has grown. Ends succinctly in a hollow echo knock.

Walkin Blue

Sonic Youth say: Lee with his arm around yr shoulder, getting you through a seemingly impenetrable day of dread to a clear vision towards sweet foreverness.

John says: This song and the last one remind me of Neil Young a little bit, which is no great surprise I guess. Singer/songwriterly and could have come off Thurston's solo album.

Luke says: I can see your point there, John, but I must say I think this is a little fuller-sounding than that, especially with the really interesting spiraling instrumental part at the end. Shelley's drums are really mechanical here, and once again Sonic Youth keep it fresh, keep it upbeat, and are always clearly going somewhere.

Massage The History

Sonic Youth say: The long way home, where blood rules the universe and time becomes myth.

John says: When you speak to Sonic Youth, they'll laugh in your face if you ask them about politics or the war or the credit crunch or whatever but this stuff creeps in from time to time. Play guitars like violins. It was irritating to hear Sonic Youth listing all the questions that they don't like being asked by journalists on the last album. Who wants to hear rock stars moaning about how hard it is being a rock star? They don't make any sense here at all. No sense just friction, volume, sickness, sweetness and adrenaline.

Luke says: This is actually one of my favourite tracks on The Eternal. Exactly the sort of thing you want to end an album, expansive and atmospheric, guitars both and uncomfortable noisy scratching. Shelley's drum rolls judder imperiously, Gordon's vocals take on a dark echo. Again, Sonic Youth explore gothic territories, though the picked acoustic and big sky Americana electric when they pull things back around the six minute mark are about as trad as Sonic Youth have ever been. Once again, like so much of The Eternal, 'Massage The History' is imbued with a sense of vitality and rejuvenation, and it seems that more than at any point in years Sonic Youth seem to have a sense of purpose and direction. It's tempting, of course, to put this down to the return to an independent label, a change in writing methods, and the addition of new member Mark Ibold, but let's leave that to the interviews. "Come with me to the other side," Gordon concludes, menace in her voice, "not everyone makes it out alive..." Anticipate your visitation to The Eternal with relish, for this is some journey indeed.

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