I came to Sonic Youth just as they were getting old. As fate would have it, the band released their easing-into-middle-age resurgence record the same month I graduated from high school. I can’t say for sure whether most old heads considered Murray Street a return to form upon its release 20 years ago this Saturday, though the rave reviews sure gave me that impression. “If you’ve never heard them before this is a great place to start,” opined the BBC’s Nick Reynolds. “It’s one of their best, and an object lesson to any pretender.” What this one-time pretender can confirm is that Murray Street kicked off a prolific final stretch for Sonic Youth, one marked by thrilling live shows and rewarding records aplenty.
Maybe some of that renaissance had to do with the addition of living genius Jim O’Rourke as an official member. At the time, O’Rourke was an omnipresent force at the intersection of indie rock and the avant-garde — the same corner where Sonic Youth had been hanging out their whole career — and he’d recently overseen spectacular records like Knock Knock, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and his own Insignificance. He was an obvious fit for Sonic Youth. But O’Rourke also co-produced the band’s widely derided prior LP, 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which quickly descended from wistful beauty into various spoken-word mishaps and failed experiments. (The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis called it “the New York quartet at their worst: an unlistenable exercise in pretentious nose-thumbing that succeeded only in making the appeal of the Stereophonics crystal clear.” Mr. Writer, why don’t you tell it like it really is!) So even though I’m always down for some Jim O’Rourke worship, I’m not sure you can cite his involvement in Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse as the sole variable that brought Sonic Youth back from the brink.
The mini-documentary The Making Of Murray Street offers a few contributing factors. For one thing, Thurston Moore’s older brother Gene, who’d originally taught him guitar and turned him on to rock, left one of Thurston’s acoustic guitars in a slightly unfamiliar tuning, which led to Thurston writing a handful of loose and playful new tunes originally intended for a solo album. There’s an easy, streamlined quality to opener “The Empty Page,” like it flowed right out of the band as a completed document. For whatever reason — because of the late June release date, or the cover photograph of Moore and Kim Gordon’s daughter playing in a strawberry patch with her friend, or the fact that I experienced this era of the band at outdoor shows alongside peers like Wilco and the Flaming Lips — it’s the Sonic Youth song that most sounds like an idyllic summer day. The languid “Disconnection Notice,” on which squalls of orchestral-sounding guitar hang over the soulful groove like exhaust fumes on an oppressively humid day, sounds more like the season as it’s actually experienced in New York City.
Also in the mini-doc, the journalist Byron Coley, a longtime friend of the band’s, talks about going to see the then-recent Almost Famous with Moore, an experience that had the Sonic Youth co-leader wistful over never going to see Led Zeppelin in their heyday. (Coley jokes that Moore also tried to find a way to crash Steve Albini’s recording sessions with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.) Moore famously teased Murray Street as the band’s “classic rock” record, and you can hear that side of the band’s DNA in the record’s shaggy sprawl. Many listeners drew a connection to Lee Ranaldo’s beloved Grateful Dead, while critics picked up whiffs of guitar gods ranging from Thin Lizzy to Television. The influence of the proggiest punk band at CBGB’s is clearest of all in “Rain On Tin,” an eight-minute journey on which the band makes the most of its new three-guitar alignment, twisting and tangling and harmonizing at length. Only Gordon’s wiry, aggressive outburst “Plastic Sun” cuts away from the vibed-out splendor.
As explained by Ranaldo in the short film, the album also represents Sonic Youth getting back into their part of the city in the aftermath of 9/11. Murray Street is named for the Manhattan street where the band built its studio, not far from the World Trade Center site. Work on the album was well underway by the time of the attack — O’Rourke was asleep in the studio when the first plane hit and was awoken to a horrific scene on the street that had him hallucinating explosions for weeks to come — so it’s not exactly accurate to call this music a response to that moment in history. But by the time they got back into the studio two months later, there was definitely a renewed sense of purpose to the project. “We had a desire to reclaim the neighborhood, in a way,” Moore told the Chicago Tribune. “We also felt it was good karma, to do something creative, with a positive vibe in that area. Walking each day to work was an adventure in itself, getting through barricades and police lines. At night it was a scene out of a science fiction movie, with the huge lights, and the neighborhood evacuated except for us. The soundtrack for the album was this reparation work, this amazing noise outside our window 24 hours a day.”
If it’s a document of Sonic Youth literally reclaiming their neighborhood, Murray Street is also the sound of the band zeroing back in on signature musical terrain. Comparisons to Daydream Nation proliferated, and although Murray Street is far more chill than that 1988 landmark, it definitely captured a familiar essence. In Moore’s concise heater “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style,” Gordon’s album-closing epic “Sympathy For The Strawberry,” and especially Ranaldo’s 11-minute stunner “Karen Revisited,” the band sounds like they’re back in a comfort zone yet also on an adventure. As Will Hermes wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “Sonic Youth find a balance — between formlessness and structure, melody and cacophony — that’s eluded them for a while.”
Ironically, that very mixture of accessibility and noise is what initially made O’Rourke a Sonic Youth skeptic. “I didn’t get them for a long time, because I was a purist — I like my rock to sound like rock, and my noise to be brutally noisy, and to me they weren’t quite doing one or the other,” he told the Tribune. “Only later did I come to realize that what was strong about them is their ability to make those two things work together.” Clearly he clicked with them eventually. In the making-of doc, we see him in mad-scientist tinkering mode, creating a “master” effects pedal that can control several other pedals with one stomp. Later he can be seen hashing out technical details with Ranaldo and Steve Shelley and breaking into goofy dance moves with Moore. He looks like he’s having fun. All of them do.