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Published: 2009/06/15
by Randy Ray

The Eternal – Sonic Youth

Much has changed in the Sonic Youth universe. The band left their major label, DGC/Interscope, and has released their latest album, The Eternal on the user-friendly indie label Matador. They also worked in a new manner to craft individual songs in short inspirational bursts, eventually compiling an albums worth in one month. Just as significantly, producer, experimentalist, filmmaker, and everything-instrumentalist Jim ORourke, who left the band in 2005, has seen his slot filled by ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, who appears for the first time on a Sonic Youth album.
And much has not changed in a way that is well, sonically apparent on the new album. Although the band recently performed a very out-there score at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s At Ninety with producer, heady innovator, and former Led Zeppelin multi-instrumentalist John Paul Jones, Sonic Youth has—wisely or not—decided to stick to the basics on The Eternal while somehow crafting an almost mini-career statement.
The guitars are prominent, biting, riffing with fierce simplicity (Sacred Trickster, What We Know and Poison Arrow). The amplified noise is present on occasion, but brief. The ambient textures are intoxicating but never prolonged (the wonderful outro to Anti-Orgasm is a cool audio temptress). The vocals are very New York, very direct yet elliptical, sometimes Lou Reed-infected, but the lyrical content is also always laced with an experiential cynicism that is actually comforting to hear. The rhythm section is taut and heavy. Ibold is tight, but drummer Steve Shelley propels many of the new songs forward with a confident thrust when the band isnt venturing a bit into cacophonic space and chaotic ideas, quickly slipping back into focus, or ending without a goodbye.
That is not to say that Sonic Youth dont venture into that blissful state of limitless melancholia they have been exploring in their latter years on The Eternal. Antenna contains a portrait of unrequited lust that fades into a nice bit of Floydian imagery via a martial drum pattern. Malibu Gas Station is a picturesque tableaux filled with odd melodic segues. But it is the albums final cut, ‘Massage the History,’ which finally encapsulates all of the loose fragments of memorable riffs, chaotic thought patterns, group mind noise thrusts, and an atmospheric tone that embraces freedom yet is fully aware of the controls that fate places on our shoulders. Kim Gordon delivers an understated, passionate, and fragile vocal performance on the song which parallels the drifting bubble of music in a profound way. If the rest of The Eternal is a consolidation of their three-decade catalogue, with a few new lyrical ideas, as well, thrown in for good measure, then Massage the History, in a single song, is an even more appropriate summation of the gloriously unique Sonic Youth soundtwisting and perilous, never quite sure if it means to befriend, enlighten, or just plain fuck with you. Or, in some cases, fuck you.

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