4 out of 5 stars
Sonic Youth could easily be the coolest band on the contemporary indie rock scene. While a word as vague and subjective as “cool” may be incredibly difficult to quantify, the New York quintet certainly seem eligible.
Nearly 30 years into its career, with three out of five band members in their 50s, the band still puts on live performances akin to the electric chair. They’ve never slowed down to bask in the seasoned glory of their central positions in both the No Wave and ’90s alt-rock scenes, opting instead to carve out a ruthlessly ambitious discography, churning out rock-solid albums every one to two years (the three-year hiatus between Rather Ripped and The Eternal, its 16th studio album, is the closest it has ever come to a “lull”).
In the increasingly cannibalistic world of indie music, where sonic influences are recycled and regurgitated so routinely that once rebellious sounds have become predictable blueprints for an “authentically alternative” timbre, Sonic Youth has maintained an inimitable style. And with The Eternal, the band continues its dynasty as the timeless monarch of art-rock, staying true to itself without ever teetering into self-caricature or sounding stale.
Given this, the Sonic Youth you’ll find on its latest effort isn’t quite the hell-bent succubus of macabre clack you’ll find on earlier, grimier albums like EVOL and Sister. Nor does it allow for the spacey meandering of more recent records like A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts & Flowers. Instead, the band shoots for a tighter, more digestible sound, weaning off the in-your-face dissonance of untethered feedback interludes in lieu of more straightforward rock structures carried along by sinewy grooves (courtesy of the band’s newest member and ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold).
While Sonic Youth loyalists may pine for the band’s doomsday atmospherics — gone are the lurid word-vomits about car crashes over clanking sonic dungeons — The Eternal is anything but soft. With Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth’s previous studio album, the band began gravitating toward a friendlier sound. And while the record was certainly easy on the ears, it came off as a bit insubstantial compared to the rest of the band’s meaty repertoire.
The Eternal marks the successful culmination of this evolutionary stage, taking conventional rock foundations and stuffing them chock-full of the band’s signature, intertwining anti-melodies. Where Rather Ripped occasionally felt wafery, The Eternal packs a full-bodied crunch, layering its to-the-point melodies with complementary squalls and spidery guitar pinpricks. The band has collapsed its abrasive formula of infectious-melody-that-disintegrates-into-white-noise, writing airtight songs that maintain their bounce throughout, as jarring counterpoints worm their way in and out of the mix.
Before, a three-and-a-half minute song like “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” would have stretched out past the five-minute mark. Here, it demonstrates Sonic Youth’s newfound penchant for conciseness, layering relentless hooks with chopsocky guitar shredding and syncopated wah-wah-ing instead of allotting these spastic tics their own designated “noise section.” The entire record sports a brawny yet approachable aesthetic that hits all at once but rewards repeated listens.
The album’s accessibility should not be taken as a sign that the band has been neutered. Sonic Youth’s gritty black holes of white noise are still in existence on the record, but are edited down and squeezed into the cracks. The lightning-storm guitar ripping on “Anti-Orgasm” is sandwiched between slutty blues riffs and black, rugged funk grooves, hitting as hard as ever amid the rest of the track’s immediacy. And the band’s vivid non sequitur lyrics haven’t slackened with age. For example, on “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” Thurston Moore still sounds like a badass, spewing out head-scratchers like “Trash can Canterbury Hollywood Boulevard.” With The Eternal, the band has reaffirmed its position as the greatest American art-rock band, creating music that truly rocks without ever coloring in the lines.