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Sonic Youth - The Eternal

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Artist: Sonic Youth

Album: The Eternal

Label: Matador

Review date: Jun. 8, 2009

People seem torn about The Eternal. It’s surprising to find Sonic Youth albums ‘divisive’ at this stage in their career, just as they’ve settled into a kind of twilight wisdom. But recently there’s been some complaining about their general ‘not avant garde-ness’ and their hegemonic status in the alterna-indie world, alongside the usual hosannas thrown toward every Sonic Youth album that isn’t NYC Ghosts and Flowers (though I’ll happily argue that’s one of their most under-rated and under-explored records).

That’d be fine if Sonic Youth were stern vanguardists – but what we’re dealing with here is a rock group who actually appear most interested in keeping on being a rock group. That Sonic Youth means something, extra-musically, to a lot of people invested in the artifice and edifice of rock criticism is fine, but SY suffer the almost ignominious fate of not being allowed to be Sonic Youth in 2009: they’re always SY in relation to i.e. Daydream Nation, or the SY Geffen years, or their Juno pop-culture moment, or Starbucks Youth, or...

Perhaps The Eternal doesn’t help matters by being, ultimately, another excellent Sonic Youth album. That it’s one of their better recent efforts surely has something to do with their shift from major label purgatory to independent label ‘freedom.’ They sound rejuvenated, as though being liberated from the toil of dealing with the Geffen machine has loosened their limbs, lightened the load and returned Sonic Youth to what they do best – being Sonic Youth.

So the language of The Eternal is immediately familiar if you’ve been following Sonic Youth’s development in their third decade: guitars that tangle and buckle, lyrics that cross the obfuscatory with the observational, licks and riffs lifted from extra-curricular studies and then mangled through the group’s three-guitar circuitousness. Unlike, say, “Dripping Dream” or “Rain On Tin” from earlier this decade, Sonic Youth are now less likely to spend minutes stretching their arms and warping each other’s lines until they’ve hit the sweet spot that Television were aiming for on Marquee Moon. The Eternal is largely concise and dynamic, and even the longer songs here, like the glorious “Antenna,” are expertly measured. The closing “Massage The History” has Kim Gordon at her most eldritch and the group at their most unwound – but if you’re expecting the lengthy blowouts of recent times, you might be surprised at The Eternal’s self-editing function (“Malibu Gas Station”’s noise blowout censors itself after about fifteen seconds). And it might be a small thing, but the notable increase in multi-vocal performances here suggests a new-found comfort in each other’s company, a kind of ‘new community’ within the SY ferment.

Of course, ultimately Sonic Youth albums are never just Sonic Youth albums – or, rather, they’re never allowed to be. And I’m all for the broader context, particularly with a group as voracious and culturally complex as Sonic Youth. But I’m here to defend Sonic Youth neither from their detractors nor their admirers. The Eternal is a rock group playing at the peak of their powers: assured but not ‘comfortable,’ and free with each other. This is five people in a room, making the rock album that other ‘four guys in a room’ groups have regularly been trying – and failing – to do for a long time.

By Jon Dale

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