I was making some notes on the new Sonic Youth album, “The Eternal”, this morning, when it occurred to me that writing “pop” down again and again was pretty absurd – one of those delusional fallacies that people who don’t listen to too much actual pop have, I guess, when a rock band starts working in a notionally punchy way.
It’d be a bit daft, then, to call “The Eternal” a pop record. But for the Youth’s first indie “official” album in a couple of decades, there’s a pointed irony that it finds the band in one of their more accessible and economical moods. On the first few listens, “The Eternal” seems immediate, but not quite as engaging as recent Sonic Youth albums. It has a very crisp, uncluttered sound in general, and doesn’t seem like it has many secrets to discover over time.
Then, a dozen or so listens in, it starts repaying the work put in. Like “Sonic Nurse” and “Rather Ripped” before it, “The Eternal” is a nice way into the sometimes intimidating world of this great band. But while those two records moved elegantly towards a sort of negotiation with more orthodox rock, “The Eternal” favours a compacted, tight reiteration of their old, clanging and surging schtick.
In some ways, it reminds me a bit of “Dirty”, with a similar sense of discipline, of wilder instincts being reined in, and with the presence of a mainstream indie-rock producer, in this case John Agnello (in “Dirty”’s case, Butch Vig) behind the desk. On songs like Kim Gordon’s “Malibu Gas Station”, you can sense the band moving towards one of their trademark squalls, but when it comes, it’s ruthlessly brief, as if they’re revelling in self-denial, ancient punk strictures, rather than billowing freedom.
The band’s notes to each track are littered with references – to Noise Nomads, Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, The Dead C, The MC5, Neu!, The Wipers, The Germs and so on. Generally, though, Sonic Youth have rarely sounded so utterly like themselves, or even, maybe, how both fans and critics of the band imagine Sonic Youth to sound.
As a fan, it’s still wonderful to hear them take flight, as they do during Lee Ranaldo’s “What We Know”, though those repeated listens reveal more about the new enhanced focus of the band: there’s a certain clarity to the vocals, mixed uncharacteristically high, which, for better or worse, pushes the lyrics to the fore. There’s also a tighter rhythmic base, with Mark Ibold settling alongside Steve Shelley into basslines that often feel a touch more linear and conventional than sometimes in the past.
Again, this serves to make “The Eternal” less of a freewheeling trip, but one which motors along with a pleasing directness; Ibold is notably brilliant on another Kim Gordon song, “Calming The Snake” (one vaguely reminiscent, perhaps simply because of the line “Come on down”, of “Death Valley ‘69”)
It is Gordon, in fact, who seems to dominate “The Eternal”: her songs “Sacred Trickster” and “Massage The History” bookend the album, and her words provide a charged mission statement, not least when the record begins with her intoning, “I want you to levitate me.” One of the last things you hear, deep into the ten minutes of “Massage The History” (a beautiful oceanic swoon that may be distant kin to “The Diamond Sea”) is her singing, in a brilliantly expressive whisper, “Come with me to the other side… Not everyone makes it out alive…”
Perhaps it’s endemic of my personal Sonic Youth biases that, amidst all these short sharp songs, it’s the more pensive and unravelling “Massage The History” and “Antenna” which stand out here, the latter being an elegaic Thurston Moore chugger closer in spirit to some “Sonic Nurse” tracks. There’s also, though, a Ranaldo song called “Walkin Blue” which, surely inadvertently, conjures up one of the unlikeliest Sonic Youth references I can think of, melodically recalling Blur’s “There’s No Other Way”. A bit late to go baggy, perhaps…