When we caught up with Thurston Moore recently, he told us, “I think the Matador record shows us in an excited and newly liberated state of play.” The John Fahey bedecked Matador album in question, The Eternal, the band’s followup to the duskier, tauter Rather Ripped, is indeed a rollicking good time. When you stop to think about it, it’s actually hard believing this is album 16, that the band’s been around since 1981, and that the core’s largely in (or close to, Steve) their 50s. They’ve had duds, yes, but since Murray Street, they seem revitalized, so the fact that The Eternal’s good shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s more surprising the way they go about it.
Which is to say, with abandon. After a few chimed notes clattering together in that way Sonic Youth always pulls off, it’s off to the races, an extended adrenaline rush. In case you were wondering, the album does indeed have heavy ass weirdo hooks. It also has those beautiful, chiming extended instrumental moments (that shiny, crisp, Daydream-y SY guitar sound can be so perfect). You’ve already heard the Yves Klein/Noise Nomads-saluting “Sacred Trickster.” It’s what opens the album and the overlap of the blue-obsessed French painter and Western Mass noisemakers is a good starting point for The Eternal and much of Sonic Youth’s practice, a mix of punk grime and elegant art rock. It’s the shortest track on the album, immediately stabbing its way into the 6-minute “Anti- Orgasm,” a rollicking, sexy Thurston and Kim call and response: “Penetration / destroys the party / Violation / of the cosmic body / Do you understand / The problem? Anti-war / is Anti-orgasm.” And then they grunt a bunch. The final half of the song’s instrumental (ecstatic, blistering roughness to spacious pristine), as if they’re too busy smoking post-coital cigarettes to step to the microphone. The mood shifts a bit with the Beat-homaging “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso).” The explanation:
The NYC beat poet Gregory Corso once referred to life on Earth as a leaky lifeboat. This tune expounds on this rumination.
The Eternal offers a good mix of Lee, Thurston, and Kim sung songs. We just saw them looking energized and lithe in their performance of Ranaldo’s “What We Know” on Jools Holland. As noted then, Lee’s songs conjure a blustery urban darkness; on “”Walkin Blue,” though, he feels almost cuddly … from tour guide to confidant: “Hey now, what’s the news I heard / You’ve been seen walking blue / I know we’re all confused, it’s true / I know you feel the same way” and “I’m here to let you know all we need to do / is just to just let go,” etc. Thanks, man. Throughout, The Eternal is more jagged than Rather Ripped. “Poison Arrow” opens with a minute plus of dagger chops before Thurston’s calming voice enters the picture. That’s sort of the odd, perhaps unconscious, theme here: A kind of paternal vibe emerges, even when Kim’s asking to be levitated and howling about wanting to see you shiver and hear you quiver in the excellently raw “Calming The Snake.”
Musically, the band remains inventive and fluid with their strange agglomerations: The way “Malibu Gas Station” opens with a crystalline, pensive guitar pondering before pausing to find the band strutting into a bouncier direction and, ultimately, a Confusion Is Sex noise explosion (then back again). And, as always, from the Fahey artwork to “Thunderclap For Bobby Pyn” to “No Way”‘s No Wave and Wipers homaging, and “Burning Shame”‘s tribute to Fred “Sonic” Smith, Sonic Youth albums remain a great history lesson for the youngsters (i.e. look up the names if you don’t know them).
As quickly as The Eternal begins, it goes out slow and teasingly with the album’s longest track “Massage The History,” a whispery, slinky, almost 10-minute let’s go back to bed outro. You get the slow build, the ebbs and flows (a diamond sea), the feedback dynamics, the thoughts that “Not everyone makes it to the other side” and “Not everyone makes it out alive.” In “Pyn,” Moore pays homage to Darby Crash with his “you did not fade from noise meditation.” Right on. Sonic Youth haven’t either, but more impressively, they didn’t kill themselves at 22, are still going strong after living twice as long as Crash. An early death is one way to achieve punk rock immortality, surely. Sonic Youth’s long and varied path might be littered with career missteps, but in the end, their arrival at the eternal (even with our bad punning) is clearly preferable.
The Eternal is out 6/9 via Matador.