A quarter of a century, 21 albums, and a consensus is still nowhere in sight. As with any Sonic Youth album, there will be a split opinion on Rather Ripped between those who love its accessible nature, those who like it but miss the good ol’ days, and those who refuse to accept it for not consisting of nine minute drones. This pattern has been consistent since the release of Dirty, contention mounting over the role of accessibility and melody in the band’s music, of whether they’re more avant garde than rock `n’ roll, or vice versa. And when the band’s releases can vary between the droning difficulty of NYC Ghosts and Flowers to the melodic jams of Murray Street, a resolution for that very contention becomes further out of reach. Yes, Sonic Youth is an artsy, experimental bunch. But they’re also a rock band—one of the best of the past few decades.
With Rather Ripped, Sonic Youth deals strongly in melody. And as straightforward as it may be, there’s nothing very un-Sonic Youth-like here. Guitar tone, vocals, song structure, feedback—it’s all very recognizable. Yet, Ripped is a very different album, mostly in that it’s a leaner, simpler version of the band, and a stunning one at that. Unlike its more meandering predecessor, Sonic Nurse, it contains mostly songs under the five minute mark, several of which have more instantly recognizable hooks. Right off the bat, opener “Reena” comes off sounding like Nico singing over Television riffs, almost shocking in its unabashed display of sunny pop. Likewise, “Incinerate” recalls NYC indie rockers Versus, with its melancholy, yet catchy pop approach. Being the first two songs on the album, these may come as a turn off to those who preferred albums such as A Thousand Leaves or Bad Moon Rising.
Single-heavy or not, even at their most user-friendly, some of Ripped‘s best songs are the least conventional. “Do You Believe in Rapture?” finds Thurston Moore examining Born-Agains in the Oval Office (“hear him howl his bloody tongue…burnin’ eyes seek Jesus comin’“), much in the way “Peace Attack” was their anti-war song, and while it’s certainly graceful and pretty, it’s a strange arrangement for the band, reverting to a barely-there two-chord refrain, ringing spaciously and sparely. Then comes “Sleepin’ Around,” a chugging, skronky rock song in the vein of Dirty, with heavy lows and tom heavy drums. It’s the first of a few songs with some of the band’s more salacious lyrics, Moore singing, “sleepin’ around/all over town/what would the neighbors think?,” Similar themes follow in the sillier “What a Waste,” combining noisier squeals and jangly leads underneath Kim Gordon’s declaration, “what a waste/you’re so chaste/I can wait/to taste your face.”
I still hesitate to say that Rather Ripped is the band’s most straightforward album. It begins that way, but in a sort of sideways fashion, it digresses over the course of the album into weirder, albeit still melodic songs, becoming less and less like “Reena,” particularly near the end. “Jams Run Free,” a graceful and haunting standout, does away with noise for the most part, letting clean-ringing guitar licks take over until the last thirty seconds with a moderately restrained section of guitar squall and improvisational riffing. Though the song remains tight, despite its titular promise of jams, Kim Gordon’s lyrics almost sound like free association, spouting words like “jagged brian/slow refrain” as if to describe the song itself. “Rats,” the Lee Ranaldo joint, is oddly funky, yet characteristically psychedelic, much in the way “Mote” or “Eric’s Trip” were.
There are a few lengthy diversions, namely the pretty, kaleidoscopic “Turquoise Boy” and the seven-minute, ominous trip back to more familiar sounding Youth of the past. As the songs pass by, each one brings with it a striking shift in tone and style. Every song is unquestionably a Sonic Youth album, but in very different ways. And by the time closer “Or” comes around, it’s as if the album has floated into a stream-of-consciousness nirvana, music reduced to gentle lulls, Moore’s lyrics describing rock show conversations: “What time are you guys playing/where you going next?”
On Sonic Youth’s final offering on Geffen Records, they close this 16 year chapter with a paradox. Rather Ripped is both their most mature album and most youthful of late, finding simple joys in a rock song, while allowing melodies to be experimental in and of themselves. The great debate over what makes a great Sonic Youth album will undoubtedly last much longer than their live version of “The Diamond Sea,” and I hesitate to say that there’s a definite answer. Rather Ripped, one of the band’s most solid to date, is a fine argument for a tighter sound and a tendency toward a good rock song. This is a fantastic listen, but if you’d still rather hear them play something less structured, there’s always Goodbye 20th Century.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.