I’ve had The Eternal, Sonic Youth’s new album, for a few months now. Probably since the day it came out. Normally, with an album like that, I’d listen to it several times in a couple of days and then review it, either very positively or very negatively. And I have listened to The Eternal a lot since I got it. But here’s the thing: I don’t have a lot to say about Sonic Youth other than to say that I like them. I really like them. A lot. Enough to forgive them for “Anit-Orgasm” which – don’t get me wrong – is an awesome song musically, but the lyrics contain such completely fucked logic that I’m half convinced they’re taking a piss. The first chorus states “Anti-war is anti-orgasm” which is demonstrably false. I’ll prove them wrong right now, in fact: I myself am definitely against war. Totally against it. I mean, I really hate war, okay? But I love orgasms. You’d be hard-pressed (haha) to find someone more pro-orgasm than I am. But don’t take my word for it, ask your friends. I bet you’ll find plenty of people who are anti-war and pro-orgasm. So either Sonic Youth is funning around a bit or Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore like it rough.
Anyway, The Eternal is a great album. It sort of reminds me of the noisier albums that preceded Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped, and its best moments approach Daydream Nation greatness. But it’s not gonna win you over if you don’t already like Sonic Youth. And that’s one of the things I really like about them, actually. There isn’t an album that strikes me as Sonic Youth trying to win over the 14-year-old crowd. They’re so insular that Miley Cyrus probably doesn’t know enough about them to give them the chance to snub her at an awards show. I mean, yeah, Rather Ripped is probably their “pop” album, but all their songs, underneath all the other stuff, are pop songs. Listen to “Total Trash” if you don’t believe me. In fact, just listen to “Total Trash.”
After listening to The Eternal about a million times, I’ve realized that one of my favorite things about any given Sonic Youth album is Kim Gordon. I could do something stupid and arbitrary and declare her the Queen of Rock or something, but that wouldn’t really do her justice. Suffice it to say that there are no other women (and few men) performing today who kick as much ass in a single song as Kim Gordon does. Check out “Kissability” from Daydream Nation or “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” (which is most definitely about Mariah Carey) – Gordon has an unmatched ability to go for the throat. Your favorite screamy-emo (screamo?) bands will never convey as much real meaning as Kim Gordon did by speak-singing “Are you for sale? Fuck you! Does ‘Fuck you’ sound simple enough?” on “The Sprawl”.
On 2006’s Rather Ripped, Gordon was a little bit subdued, more directly musical. That’s not a bad thing at all – I really dug that album. But she starts off The Eternal with a bang on “Sacred Trickster,” delivering the line ” ‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’/ I don’t quite understand” with all her ferocious, mordacious might. The Eternal is not – and does not need to be – a return to form for Sonic Youth (what, exactly, is their form? That’s like talking about the Flaming Lips returning to form. Incidentally, when I was in college, I knew a dude who didn’t like Beck’s Sea Change album for this reason: “It doesn’t sound like a Beck album, it sounds like a Flaming Lips album” – I guarantee you that he read that somewhere and regurgitated it verbatim. Anyway, one of my friends responded, “What does a Beck album sound like? Stereopathic Soul Manure?” I quipped, “Yeah, and what does ‘a Flaming Lips album’ sound like?” Even if you could define these things in some typical way, the assertion that Sea Change sounds like a Flaming Lips album could only lead to the net positive conclusion that Sea Change sounds fucking awesome), but “Sacred Trickster” is really refreshing after the quieter Rather Ripped.
And so the album goes, and it’s not that the vocal turns by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are by any means subpar (Ranaldo sings on “That’s What We Know,” which is one of Sonic Youth’s heaviest tracks in a long time and Thurston Moore is always great), it’s just that Kim Gordon is so goddamned interesting as a vocalist. The two dudes have pretty calm baritone/tenor voices and then there’s Gordon, whose vocal takes might not always be described as “pretty” (although “Massage the History,” despite its excessive length, is beautiful), but they’re definitely compelling in a way that few vocalists of any gender would ever attempt. Only Karen O., of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs comes to mind as a close comparison, and it’s arguable that she owes a heavy debt to Kim Gordon. But you’ll never see a VH1 Divas special with Kim Gordon, Karen O. and Pixie/Breeder Kim Deal, will you? (That would be awesome, however – maybe Exene Cervenka and Corin Tucker could pitch in? Maybe I should initiate a hostile takeover of VH1) No. No, you won’t.
There’s lots of not-Kim-Gordon stuff to like about The Eternal, assuming you like Sonic Youth to begin with (again, I can’t think of the Sonic Youth album for people who don’t like Sonic Youth. Listen to one of their albums – any one – do you like it? Then you like Sonic Youth). One of my other favorite things about this band is that I like each of their albums more with every listen, which means The Eternal is really great for me and it will only get better.
Incidentally, I’ve alluded to some magical rule of the 3 year follow-up in some other reviews this year, and The Eternal continues the pattern. If you made your last album in 2006, this is the year to get the follow-up out. The Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, MF Doom, Neko Case, and now Sonic Youth have all hit home runs on this rule (and I can only guarantee that it will be in effect for 2009. It also assumes your last album was awesome – so don’t expect, say, the Red Hot Chili Peppers to issue a stellar follow-up to Stadium Arcadium – whatever they do and whenever they release it, it will still suck). The final test of this theory is coming in October, when the Flaming Lips release the double-disc Embryonic… which, I have it on good authority, will sound like a Beck album.