Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Eternal - Sonic Youth

The Eternal

Sonic Youth
Matador Records.

SCQ Rating: 71%

Three years ago, I spent a few days visiting a close friend who, as timing would have it, became plunged into the uncertainty and dread of a pregnancy scare. For the last twenty-four hours of my visit, her apartment seemed hostage to a stifling static. We attempted to distract ourselves with movies and conversation but such efforts were useless. The truth – perhaps, the inevitable! - was out of our hands, beyond the parameters of foresight or planning and lost into the coarse law of cause and effect. I agreed to stay until pregnancy test results were conclusive and alas: she (and her clueless one-time lover) were not pregnant, and I was able to say goodbye with a smile instead of condolences. Yet her phantom-child haunted my Greyhound bus back to London, reminding me how our commitment-free lifestyle hung precariously like clouds above “the real world”. As a celebration of my own freedom reinstated by my friend’s fright, my first order of business was to pick up Rather Ripped upon arrival in London, and all night, I swooned to its melodic – and unusually romantic – songs above my selfish, untouchable cloud. It was a needed distraction and, somehow, a rite of passage.

Now get this: three years on, during a similar June day in which The Eternal was released, I arrived at work to discover that my colleague had (A) been twelve weeks pregnant, (B) miscarried, and (C) been oblivious of both cases until her doctor told her. Again, this bizarre nature of truth – this law of the eternal! – crawled up through the day-to-day vapours that keep us all intoxicated to remind us of that “real world”. No study in cause or effect, no morale to the story; just a pin-prick wakeup, a phantom-funeral. So I left work and wasted no time purchasing The Eternal, an album so impossibly titled and infinitely gorgeous to look at, only a band this vital - despite nearly thirty years together – might have the key to decode its meaning.

The predicament of diving into something as vague and endless as ‘the Eternal’ is ironically compounded by Sonic Youth’s equally endless citations, from ‘Calming the Snake’’s apparent references to the Dead C, the MC5 and Neu to ‘Thunderclap (for Bobby Pryn)’’s origin of bed-jumping with Helen Killer, Mary Rat and Trudi. Who? Yeah… Seriously, The Eternal should come bundled with a reference guide. Some lyrics and ideas ring true to their inspirations, like the savagely awesome ‘Anti-Orgasm’ which breaks down sex laws of the 60s, or mix of fantasy and desire on the patient ‘Antenna’. But when the two-minute ‘Sacred Trickster’ is detailed as a “hardcore matinee track (…) saluting French painter Yves Klein and (…) noise artist Noise Nomads”, does that offer its listener deeper meaning? Does NYC beat poet Gregory Corso’s belief that life on Earth is that of a leaky lifeboat make ‘Leaky Lifeboat’ a better rock song? Does anyone besides the hungriest Sonic Youth fan care? Trying to follow the band’s inspiration behind The Eternal is intellectual Snakes and Ladders, and the directness of several tracks implies their theoreticals didn’t translate in studio. (You’re welcome to read all of Sonic Youth’s track-by-track here.)

The Eternal may be as accessible, if intentionally messier, than Rather Ripped, but where that 2006 release featured heart-felt lyrics and pristine performances, this feels like a band wrapping their heads around a thousand ideas but strangely limited by their musical boundaries. Perhaps this vast pool for thought came as Sonic Youth’s contract ended with Geffen, the major-label that the band recently claim made compromising impact to their last few albums. Such an admission about major-labels shouldn’t shock anyone but I’m surprised; Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped don’t sound compromised in the least. In fact, those records seem anchored and purposeful next to The Eternal, a record that seeks the immediacy of their early Kill Yr Idols work but rarely transcends the aggression. Their most affecting tunes – ‘Malibu Gas Station’, ‘No Way’ – reflect their recent, “compromised” years best, while final track ‘Massage the History’ unfurls into a soft ten-minute jam, hazy and lovely as Rather Ripped’s ‘Pink Steam’.

In those moments, I’m reminded of Sonic Youth’s rockin’ majesty, their ability to unnerve you with guitar antics or dig deep with a shrill vocal. And The Eternal certainly extends Sonic Youth’s late, great period as a collection worthy of significant attention. These songs have context – I’ve read up on it – and while they clarify certain objectives, they still don’t impress a greater meaning to disguise their existence as rock songs. If anything, this album is a side-step for their discography; not an improvement, far from a disappointment, and certainly not the autopilot paragraph journalists turn to where they summate how this encapsulates all of Sonic Youth’s previous career-markers. In my mind, The Eternal maintains Sonic Youth’s pedigree as a band capable of transcending, of emphasizing the grit and violence of the “real world” while giving it a spiritual, otherworldly aura. If it’s compromised by anything, the record spent too much time gestating in the clouds.


You are my Symphonic said...

Sonic Youth has linked together a common theme in your life and came full circle with almost metronome precision. What a great story!

SCQ said...

Yeah man, thanks! How could I refuse The Eternal after that? This album hasn't lived up to my heavy expectations but it's still pretty intense.