another impressive album to add to an extraordinary back-catalogue - an exhilarating listen...
Jon Thomson

10:45 11th May 2009

29 years into their career Sonic Youth once again find themselves free of major label constraint, working instead with their “friends at Matador” to release ‘The Eternal’, their 16th LP. From all the press surrounding the departure from Geffen fans have, no doubt, anxiously been expecting the group to return to their more experimental, noise drenched material. This, however, is not exactly the case...

Around the release of ‘Murray Street’ there was much talk of it being the first of a trilogy, a la their legendary mid-80’run of Evol, Sister and Daydream Nation. Following albums, Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped did much to support this, delivering a selection of similarly structured and produced tracks - extended, noise and psychedelic tinged progressive rock, interspersed with the occasional abrasive punk track. On first listen, it would seem ‘The Eternal’ continues in a similar vein. Either this is part of a quadrilogy, or the band has, to some extent, settled into a comfortable groove and found a sound they are content with.

By-passing extensive writing and rehearsing, SY opted instead to compose two to three tracks over a weekend and record them the following weekend - clearly this has had a beneficial effect. Thanks to the semi-improvised quality present throughout SY sound rejuvenated and fresh - considerably more so than on their previous two albums. Lyrics are occasionally questionable (more than often pretentious), and melodies can seem a little child-like, but this is Sonic Youth after-all and the sheer gusto of the album supersedes any of these issues.

Opener, ‘Sacred Trickster’, is a prime example of their penchant for abrasive punk. Coming in at 2mins 11secs, this may very well be the shortest SY album track ever. Feeling like a big fuck you to the “precarious” major labels, this track ticks all the boxes – a brief opening of back-and-forth noise, before tearing into heavy guitar riffs and accompanying trademark strained vocals from Kim Gordon.

As the album progresses, it feels as though the group have taken this major label free situation they find themselves in to pay homage to the albums they recorded at Geffen. The blues-based riff driven tracks, ‘Anti-Orgasm’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Thunderclap’ wouldn’t be out of place on Dirty or Goo; less structured, obscure tracks, ‘Antenna’ and ‘Malibu Gas Station’ on 1,000 Leaves; and songs combining all these elements such as ‘Massage the History’ on Washing Machine. The whole effect gives a strangely familiar feel, as if the group are revisiting their early/mid-90’s material with all the experience gained during the previous three albums.

It may not be the experimental revelation anticipated, but another impressive album to add to an extraordinary back-catalogue - whether this one will be considered a stand-out or future classic is debatable. ‘Murray Street’, on the back of critic-dividing ‘NYC Ghosts and Flowers’, felt a tad over-produced and structured, but still sounded like a band exploring pastures new and subsequently received near universal acclaim. ‘The Eternal’, in contrast, is an exhilarating listen, tracks often feeling as though they are about to come apart at the seems, but there is an air of “been there, done that” present for the duration. Perhaps Sonic Youth is finally at ease with their mainstream success, content with putting out an album of genuinely great, accessible songs – and who would blame them? As veterans/god-fathers (+ mother) of the alternative/indie rock scene, even when mining their own back-catalogue they still put 99% of modern day groups to shame.

Sonic Youth do Sonic Youth, and it’s a remarkable effort.