The name "Sonic Youth" is something of a misnomer for a band approaching the 30 year mark, and yet there is still something new going on with the band after all this time. For The Eternal which you will view as either their 16th record or their 22nd (if you include the more esoteric and "experimental" SYR records), Sonic Youth have stepped down from a major label.
I find the current exodus of artists from major labels to be an interesting development. Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have both opted to go it alone, putting out their own product from their websites. No doubt each band now has lots of employees. Sonic Youth went a different route. Their contract with Geffen over, they looked around and settled on successful indie label Matador as their new home. No doubt they could have gone the NIN/Radiohead route as well, but they chose to stay on a label. I wonder why?
I guess that is not really important, in the long run. What is perhaps more important for the band is that they have added another member. Mark Ibold, who used to be in Pavement (a Sonic Youth-damaged band if ever there was one), is now the bassist in Sonic Youth. His name is on the record credits and everything.
"But wait," you exclaim. "What about Kim Gordon? I thought that she was the bassist."
Well, she still plays bass, at times. And she sings, as she always has. And sometimes she plays guitar as well, making Sonic Youth a three-guitar band during those moments. (Not that i, personally, have ever listened to a Sonic Youth song and thought, "What this tune needs is more guitars.") Basically, i am not really sure why Mr. Ibold was added to the band, but there you go. I guess the other band members all felt he added something.
Now, all of that background material aside, let me just say that this is my favorite Sonic Youth record since Washing Machine, and that is saying something as i really enjoyed 2006's Rather Ripped. Now, that said, this is a Sonic Youth record, and if you are not a fan then chances are you will not care for it.
The Eternal is Sonic Youth doing what Sonic Youth do best. They make long songs that involve a bit of noisiness, some strange lyrics, and a lot of intensely rhythmic riffing. The songs here are like jazz tunes – each starts off with a melodic theme, then somewhere in the middle it gets a little jammy, then the theme comes back and they wrap it up.
That might sound like jam rock to you, and in theory it does to me as well. What Sonic Youth are doing is not that dissimilar to what Widespread Panic or similar bands do. The difference, however, is in the details. With the classic jam rock bands, the basis of the music is the blues and/or country folk. So when the songs break down in the middle you get a lot of high-pitched, twisted notes. With Sonic Youth, the basis of the music is punk and hardcore, so when the songs get jammy in the middle, you get a lot of intense riffing and gobs of distortion. I know that seems to be a rather minor distinction, but there it is. You wouldn't catch me dead listening to Widespread Panic, but The Eternal has been the most played record of the early summer for me. I wonder if there is a big overlap between the remnants of the Deadhead/Phishhead scene, and Sonic Youth fans?
I think that the reason i like The Eternal so much is that Sonic Youth have turned in their catchiest record in a long time. There are hummable melodies here, and toe-tapping songs. How often can you hum a Sonic Youth tune? (Try humming something off of NYC Ghosts & Flowers and you might hurt yourself!)
For example, consider Antenna. This song starts with a scratchy guitar sound, then a head-bopping rhythm comes in. It's a simple beat, and Moore, Renaldo, and Gordon all do some staccato riffing over it. And then, on the chorus, they all sing "The radios play nothing when she's far away. TV antenna, nothing gone to waste" and you just want to sing along. There are parts of this song that clatter and chime in strange ways, but when it gets going it is a joyously happy melody. This is a great tune.
And there are more excellent songs here. Anti-Orgasm is overdriven and noisy, with typical Gordon vocals. Poison Arrow is another rocker which features what appears to be Moore and Renaldo sing falsetto on the chorus! (Falsetto! Next thing you know they'll be doing Bee Gees covers…)
There is about an hours worth of music here, and i find it all rewarding. Sonic Youth may not be young anymore, but they still are making engaging records.