A perpetuum mobile of a band, the ever-prolific Sonic Youth leave in their wake one of rock’s most dense, challenging and thrilling back catalogues. Daniel Tapper navigates two decades worth of vertiginous electric guitar assaults and coruscating art rock epiphanies.
Originally released in 1983, CONFUSION IS SEX is Sonic Youth’s first full-length album. Included on the album is a cover of The Stooges’ song ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, an early example of Sonic Youth’s enduring interest in covering their musical heroes – an incongruous list of people including The Fall, Madonna and The Carpenters. Those accustomed to the later, more atmospheric SY albums will be tested; Confusion Is Sex is abrasive, dark and barbarous punk rock. Listen and sob. Cover image; a sketch by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore.
If Confusion Is Sex was Sonic Youth embracing punk rock then EVOL (1986) was the band attempting to master the sound of the ineffable. It was a marked change from their previous album, the haunting Bad Moon Rising (1985); an album charged with references to Satanism, Charles Manson and pop artist Edward Ruscha. Comparatively, Evol was a hard shot of pure, unapologetic romance embodied by epic, impressionistic songs like ‘Expressway to Yr Skull’. Liner notes by writer/performance artist Lisa Crystal Carver (aka Lisa Suckdog) say it all: “Even the music is in love. Plunging headlong, silently, with great noise all around, to destruction. The Bliss of near impact.” New York performance artist Lydia Lunch co-wrote the song ‘Marilyn Moore’. Cover image; photograph by Richard Kern.
SISTER (1987) was a monumental change in Sonic Youth’s musical trajectory. Rejecting the self-indulgent traps of experimental noise music, it erred toward a more melodic and elegant sound enhanced by its analogue recording and the use of relentless, throbbing sheets of feedback. Album opener ‘Schizophrenia’ simultaneously showcases all of Sonic Youth’s most important traits, namely their ability to create moving, visceral and poetic music – transcending all that was before them. The mystically enticing songs of Sister were inspired by the work of sci-fi novelist Philip K Dick; the "sister" of the title refers to Dick's fraternal twin, who died shortly after her birth.
The epic DAYDREAM NATION (1988) has received sheaves of critical approbation over the years and is regularly cited as Sonic Youth’s best album (replete with striking Gerard Richter cover art), and somewhat overshadows the subsequent GOO (1990). In fact, Goo marked a major sea change for the band; it was their first album release after signing to major label Geffen Records, and as such introduced their work to a wider audience. The psychedelic tendencies of the band’s previous records were replaced by concise but intelligent pop songs, a direct but still dissonant challenge to the mainstream. Songs like ‘Kool Thing’ and ‘Mote’ became teenage anthems and as instantly iconic as the album’s artwork. Cover image; a comic illustration by Raymond Pettibon.
Thanks to producer Butch Vig, the potency of radio-friendly album DIRTY (1992) was in its ability to break free from the confines of experimental music, proving that Sonic Youth’s music could infiltrate the mainstream. Yet the dreamy sound of EXPERIMENTAL JET SET, TRASH AND NO STAR (1994) choose to reject the grungy, ear-bleeding riffs their fans had become accustomed to, standing in stark contrast to the terse pop of albums like Goo and Dirty. Sonic Youth were once again proving unafraid of intelligent change. Also, clean melodies compounded with Thurston Moore’s beatnik-like lyrics banished any lingering predisposition toward nihilism. If Sonic Youth records adhere to rigid conceptual threads then Experimental Jet Set's theme is unquestionably that of reverence and melancholy.
WASHING MACHINE (1995), A THOUSAND LEAVES (1998), and NYC GHOSTS & FLOWERS (2000) marked energetic years for Sonic Youth. Washing Machine produced the haunting song ‘Little Trouble Girl’, featuring vocals by sometimes ‘troubled’ Pixies/Breeders member Kim Deal and boasting an evocative video made by feature film director Mark Romanek. Kurt Cobain is eulogized in the song ‘Junkie’s Promise’, while the album culminates in the unforgettable twenty minute long ‘The Diamond Sea’, a sprawling landscape of melodic noise. Broadly speaking, A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts and Flowers evinced the band’s abiding interest in the avant-garde while implementing a cleaner-sounding production.
MURRAY STREET (2002) is often marked as the first of Sonic Youth’s ‘mature’ albums, identified by a sort of melodic subtlety and succinct richness that evokes Television’s Marquee Moon, a sound aided by their collaboration with guitarist/producer Jim O’Rourke. The comparatively minimal sound of Murray Street feels like no other Sonic Youth record; it’s as though every dissonant note and abrasive scream of feedback from the past has been ruthlessly condensed. The result is one of Sonic Youths most timeless, sensual records.. And if it wasn’t already clear that Sonic Youth are one of the most significant bands in rock history they go and produce one of their finest essays to date; the mellifluous, pointillist instrumental ‘Rain on Tin’.
Listening to SONIC NURSE (2004) you wouldn’t think that this the seventeenth album from a group with an average age of 48. The songs sound energetic, angular and intricate; they radiate inspiration from such diverse influences as painter Richard Prince (whose ‘nurse’ painting graces the cover), science fiction writer William Gibson and an overt loathing of George W Bush; Sonic Youth hadn’t sounded this young since Washing Machine. Recruiting Chicagoan musical provocateur/polymath Jim O’Rourke as a full time band member (this was actually the third Sonic Youth longplayer on which he’d appeared) was a catalyst for further evolution; the band stepped away from the dissonant Glenn Branca-inspired sound of the mid-1980s and replaced it with a wistful introspection anchored by guitar riffing reminiscent of the yielding axe style of Neil Young Young’s Zuma.
Murray Street and Sonic Nurse were unquestionably confident albums; Sonic Youth had carved out their own independent sound, a sound that rejected a natural leaning toward the punk-infused roots of the New York no-wave revolution. Furthermore, the 2006 album RATHER RIPPED consolidated the band's trust in their own unique signature; marked by a proud use of stirring melodies laced with strong, clean, angular riffs; simultaneously radio-friendly and highbrow. The album was described by Thurston Moore as "a super song record" containing "rockers and ballads" – what more could anybody want? Indeed the resonance of songs like ‘Pink Steam’ and ‘Incinerate’ are perhaps only comparable to the music of Dinosaur Jr, a band who managed to blend intelligent dissonance and straight-up rock with equally mind-blowing results. Even the album's title, Rather Ripped, like the name of Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace record label, betrays the self-assurance of a band happy wallowing in its own goofy, transcendental ways.