As they close out their third decade as a band, Sonic Youth don’t have to prove anything to anyone. By longevity and quality standards, Sonic Youth’s history speaks for itself. Their lengthy trip into dissonance in the late ’90s and the early part of this decade may have resulted in divisive albums such as A Thousand Leaves or NYC Ghosts and Flowers, though those who adore the albums are as passionate as those who loathe them. Yet these looser, drone-heavy releases were followed up by a series of melodic and accessible rock albums, rendering Juno MacGuff’s dismissal of their music as “just noise” not only shortsighted, but actually rather dated. Were Sonic Youth to head back into a noise-based direction, it’s unlikely that anyone would be that surprised, but that certainly isn’t what they’ve done with The Eternal.
Sonic Youth’s 15th album, The Eternal continues on the path charted by their past three albums into strongly melodic territory. Their first album for new label Matador, The Eternal isn’t a drastic departure for the band, in spite of their newfound freedom from major label contracts. Rather, it’s another solid set of rock songs, and awfully good ones at that. As Murray Street, Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped have shown, big riffs and big hooks serve the band quite well. Still, it’s unlike Sonic Youth to ever sound too conventional, and as can be expected, The Eternal features a plethora of sonic Easter eggs, bits of strange effects, feedback and abrasive sounds erupting between glorious chord changes.
The clanging chords that introduce opener “Sacred Trickster” are but a tease, because in just a few seconds, the song explodes into the band’s most straightforward and visceral single since “100%”. Kim Gordon’s lyrics are a bit nonsensical and silly (“I wish I could be/ music in a tree“), though it still manages to work within this adrenaline high of a song, which reaches its most thrilling highs during its crunchy chorus. “Anti-Orgasm” plays tug-of-war between the band’s accessible and abrasive sides, and even cleverly pauses for a panting session after Gordon sings the song’s title. Still, when Sonic Youth opts for mere simplicity, as in the catchy, groove-heavy “Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)” or the jangly “No Way,” they sound just as alive.
As has long been the case with Sonic Youth albums, two of the strongest songs come courtesy of Lee Ranaldo. The first of these, “What We Know,” is dark and fuzzy, driven by tom-tom heavy beats and sinister basslines, while the second, “Walkin’ Blue,” is mesmerizing riff rock, with three guitars twisting around each other in stunning formation. The stellar high of “Walkin’ Blue” is sustained in epic closer “Massage the History.” Just under ten minutes long, “Massage the History” is breathtaking and bold, simultaneously discordant and beautiful, as Kim Gordon breathily coos over layers of acoustic and electric guitars. Once the song passes its halfway point, its structure loosens in favor of an abrasive jam session, which seamlessly blends back into a closing verse that grows quieter and quieter until nothing’s left but a sole, ominous hum.
No, Sonic Youth didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, but with The Eternal they did it anyway. It’s an album for the fans, for those who have stuck around since the salad days. And yet it’s an album for everyone else, too. It’s a summation of the band’s activity for the past decade, strongly showing off their melodic skills, yet allowing their skronky side to emerge at just the right moments. And they couldn’t have picked a better title—transcending era, categorization, maybe even rock `n’ roll itself, Sonic Youth is eternal.
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.