The Anniversary

Sonic Nurse Turns 20


Beyond their deft noise manipulations and how they stumbled into being expert songwriters, Sonic Youth distinguished themselves from their peers by loving Mariah Carey. On “Kim Gordon And The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” bassist-guitarist Kim Gordon screeches a combination of fan letter and statement of support to the pop singer, then at the nadir of her career after her 2001 film debut Glitter bombed, taking 2002’s Charmbracelet down with it. The atonal boings and peels have as much to do with Carey’s ebullient bounce-to-the-ounce R&B readymades as Lydia Lunch does with Ashanti, but since 1990s “Tunic (Song For Karen)” Gordon had shown a touristic curiosity about female idols on whose shoulders the machista star-making machinery rests: a curiosity that deepened as Sonic Youth got acquainted with the David Geffens of the biz. A pro at chorus writing by 2004 when she felt like it, Gordon wrote one in the argot of conventional pop songs but without noblesse oblige: “Hey, hey little baby, get down/ Before you fall and hurt someone.”

I like to think Mariah Carey, an omnivore whose cover song choices consistently impress, appreciated Sonic Youth (a year later, revitalized, she released The Emancipation Of Mimi, the biggest-selling album of 2005). I like to imagine her version of “Shadow Of A Doubt,” Sonic Youth’s whispery-creepy 1986 ballad that sounds like wind chimes blowing on a Mordor mountain. Firmly established in Cult Land by 2004, the band released Sonic Nurse, their most devoted return to songform in almost a decade, 20 years ago this Saturday. It did well critically, ending up on enough year-end lists to (barely) make the Pazz & Jop top 40. Me, a distracted fan since the ‘90s, I loved Sonic Nurse, my album of the year. Still is. It sits comfortably among their most fruitful listens: ruminative jams, allusive rockers, ambiguous summas of Bush II-era jingoism, and distillations of chaos coalesce into a statement of enduring confidence.

But four years before this latter-day triumph, the act whose coolness was matched only by their preternatural talent for weathering the shall we say challenges of major label politics got their first punch in the face. Recorded in their home studio after their gear got stolen, NYC Ghosts & Flowers has an aqueous clarity; listening to it is like seeing your bare feet in clear shallow water. Not that many listeners noticed. In a review published during Pitchfork’s Triassic-era taste formation, Brent DiCrescenzo dismissed 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers as “an unfathomable album which will be heard in the squash courts and open mic nights of deepest hell.” You would’ve expected such hysterics on behalf of 98° instead of Sonic Youth, but part of the fun of youth is killing your idols — which after all Sonic Youth knew something about. (DiCrescenzo has since recanted.)

It wasn’t all brickbats. Early Sonic Youth target Robert Christgau lauded “its refusal to to distinguish between abrasive and tender or manmade and natural is a compelling argument for their continuing to do whatever they damn well feel like it.” Because refusing to distinguish between abrasive and tender has been this band’s m.o. since 1986, NYC Ghosts & Flowers always sounded okeedokee to me; the Feelies-meets-Dead “Free City Rhymes” is their trippiest opener since “Teenage Riot.” The rest, however, is amiably ambient, like overhearing the half-heard melodies of a band across the street tuning up. They did better on the albums bookending it. But there was a sense in which Sonic Youth had immolated their reputation, which, given the increasingly desultory reception of their Geffen-era product, needed to happen.

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About those Geffen albums. No consensus exists. Earning plaudits at the time and responsible for several of the band’s most endurable college radio and MTV hits (“Kool Thing,” “100%,” “Bull In The Heather“), they approach concision the way Prince did the Linn drum: as inquiries into form that may spark up the content. Roughly speaking, Goo (1990) retains their affection for noise tone poems, Dirty (1992) yields to CD-era bloat (yet is terrific anyway), and Experimental Jet Set, Trash, And No Star (1994) boasts harsher feedback overtones while treating songs like bits of Method acting.

Then, as if bored with their mainstream flirtations, they dropped Washing Machine (1995), wishy-washy on the songwriting but in the 19-minute “The Diamond Sea” a startling way to position themselves for the remainder of the decade: “Expressway To Yr Skull” amped up and cleaned up just in time for Built To Spill. A mix of the pastoral and the chaotic, A Thousand Leaves must have really terrified ’em in the Geffen corporate offices three years later. It opens with Gordon’s “Contre Le Sexisme.” It continues with a putative single called “Sunday” (with a video starring Macauley Culkin!) that balances the gratitude of guitarist Thurston Moore’s lyric (“With you Sunday never ends”) with radical distortion. And it comes to a thrilling stop in the middle with the 11-minute “Hits Of Sunshine (For Alan Ginsburg),” in which Moore and co-guitarist Lee Ranaldo explore the hues in their discrete clusters like Cézanne did with color. Recommended to those who miss the dissonances of their earliest work.

Joined on third guitar and occasional bass by new member Jim O’Rourke, then at the peak of his visibility thanks to his Drag City solo albums and his work for Wilco, Murray Street (2002) has a fetching thickness. The first three tracks, sung and written by Moore, don’t fuck around. “The Empty Page” and “Disconnection Notice” return to the terseness of the early Geffen period but complicated by years of experiments; you can see the first shoots of Sonic Nurse. It also has a gnomic intensity: the sort of album plausibly claimed as a favorite.

The best way to slide into Sonic Nurse is to sample “Stones,” a variant on the previous album’s “Rain On Tin.” No weird tunings, no crabbed movement: Moore and Ranaldo alternate between D and G chords while drummer Steve Shelley for a while keeps a beat that anyone can play. Pitched at a higher key than usual, Moore speaks of “warped lovers loose on languid stain” before the chorus takes a hairpin turn: “Dead or alive, there’s danger/ The dead are alright with me.” Long attracted to death because to do it in the mid ’80s countered cultural shibboleths of positivity, Sonic Youth now regarded it as an inevitability, not a kink.

Whether to accommodate terrors or fight them as middle-aged musicians animates the best of Sonic Nurse’s tracks. On “Paper Cup Exit” Ranaldo rails against “memory disease across the USA” and warns, “It’s later than you think.” On “Pattern Recognition,” over a shrieking guitar, Shelley’s nervous hi-hats, and nods towards William Gibson, Gordon yelps, “You’re the one!” and it’s not clear if it’s an endearment or a threat: Pitching her voice to compete with the bedlam is Gordon’s gift.

A provocateur whose feminist précises don’t abjure erotic play, Gordon likes to broach the limits of listenability; her tracks function as complements to Ranaldo’s Beat-damaged poetry and Moore’s Everyman curiosity. “I Love You, Golden Blue,” her greatest track of the ‘00s, starts with a feedback cloud illuminated by flashes of guitar peals, then settles into a loping groove over which Gordon, voice scraping the top of her range, laments the end of a relationship. The band, joined by O’Rourke, realizes its experiment in incremental gradation launched by “Hits Of Sunshine” six years earlier. Moreover, this is what dragging your knuckles against the stone wall of an infatuation sounds like (“I Love You, Golden Blue” made a couple of breakup CD-Rs I burned during this period).

But it’s Moore whose finale distinguishes Sonic Nurse’s historical moment. At once defiant and resigned, “Peace Attack” uses his birthday (Feb. 3) as the pivot around which he surveys America after 9-11. Thanks to the “crime boss” at the peak of his power, “springtime is wartime.” With its D-G-C chord progression Moore could be an antiwar strummer. But this is Sonic Youth. Ranaldo and O’Rourke’s guitars intertwine for leisurely solos with the sinuosity of Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. Beauty in a dunghill — the Sonic Youth ethos.

Refreshed, the band released the excellent Rather Ripped two years later. The hooks were sharper, each singer-lyricist’s turf more defined, but the foursome’s belief in the semiotics and the symbiotics of a band wavered not a millimeter through 2009’s swan song The Eternal. Years later the world learned how Thurston Moore could be as banal as the guy in the office cubicle next to you. Believers in the Sonic Youth mythos will stan for Sister and Daydream Nation, I don’t care. To prefer the 1998-2006 era is no more venial than preferring Miles Davis’ 1964-1968 era or Madonna’s 1992-2000 era. Inspiration still refreshed craft. Sonic Nurse is the proof.

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