Working through analysis, I had a (brief and fleeting) moment of clarity in terms of structure of the dissertation and the opportunity to strengthen a literary reading of critical instantiations of student agency within the community. And while I’m still wading knee-deep into this theory building component of my dissertation, I was reminded of a bit of theoretical interconnections dealing with velocity and knot-tying I’ve written about in the past. I long ago linked back to this review dealing with the fleeting nature of the thrill in hunting the white elephant in popular culture. Below, I wax lengthily on the historical context and timelessness found in the continued output of Sonic Youth. (Review now updated with relevant links! Huzzah!)
By Antero Garcia
It would be a simple and rather enticing affair to don the ubiquitous role of the Magister Ludi and play the ever-important Glass Bead Game with Sonic Youth, labeling, connecting, imbuing the band with the inner workings of the universe. And, I think, to a certain extent, the members of the band want us to play the game, to tinge the world an ecto-green with the noise yr witnessing on each record. We can play connect the dots and build the elaborate, if still unseen, spider web of connections between the band and every breathing, living, existing object in the world. There is a familiarity in each moment of this album, how are we to connect it? And to whom?
Immediately the first track echoes the charging, dismal feeling of “Hyperstation” from the awe-instilling Trilogy off of Daydream Nation. The off kilter riff, akin to the Mighty Mouse theme, harks that yes, Sonic Youth – the Sonic Youth you grew up with and fell in love with music by, that same Sonic Youth that stands in the face of all things conventional, that trumpet the outside and the unknown – is truly here to save the day. The same riff which felt utterly banal and sardonically hopeless as the band utters “Smashed-up against a car at three a.m. Kids just up for basketball, beat me in my head,” is now elevated to true heroics. We’re talking life and death, friends lost forever, growing up, being serious, 9/11. And it’s all purred lovingly by Ms. Kim Gordon. That the song is titled “Pattern Recognition” only further emphasizes the deliberate mimicry of the band’s past output.
Though “Pattern Recognition” is the most blatant nod to SY’s massive discontinuity, that sense of renewed vigor, it seems clear that the band was thrown back 15-20 years into their past the day two planes were jettisoned into the World Trade Center, across the street from the band’s office on Murray Street. This, artistically, is a deconstructed rupture. Though this is most clearly harked to on 2002’s stunning return to form, the post-9/11 American exterior is still a lurking presence on Sonic Nurse. We are still bruised as we listen and tenderly traversing toward the new musical terrain as the band takes its time to sift through the ashes and rubble and see what it can salvage of itself, what needs to be reinvented. If Murrary Street finds the band lost, in dispossession of itself, Sonic Nurse finds the quartet offering solace, searching for amenities, shelter, regrowth. Theirs is a record of reassurance and rekindling. By no stretch of the imagination am I labeling this as “happy,” but there is a sense of coming to accepting the past, of filing the last three years in a nearby folder for constant reference. This too becomes part of the familiar and interconnected world, and we again envelope ourselves with the fictitious role in Herman Hesse’s novel: there he is, the Magister Ludi, sliding the small pebble – completely unvictoriously as the Glass Bead Game is not one of wining or losing, but of maintaining balance, of keeping the world in check – into its slot next to the WTC, next to New York, and, in their own sense, nest to patriotism.
“Dripping Dream” opens swathed in a sea of feedback, it’s umbilical cord still tied to the band’s Glenn Branca-ian past while simultaneously sucking on the teat of Washing Machine. Soon kicking into a traditional – snare on the 2s and 4s – ditty, this is Sonic Youth in a comforting niche. Slightly off-kilter from the mainstream, these are our music’s grandparents. They show us how to do it, and they do it well. So many bands would do well to learn the lessons being preached in such a song. Wilco, The Jicks, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Le Tigre, Yo La Tengo (who, with the husband/wife thing also going, have a lot in common with the charging forward band), Weird War, and dare I even look to more “upstanding” and “mainstream artists?” This is, perhaps, a good enough portrait to see just how far the tendrils of the band stretch, whom they have penetrated, which they claim as their own, and whom are thus in debt to the band.
Beads, beads, beads. The world is a series of knots, suggests one exhibit at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Through Sonic Youth, we are reinterpreting, unraveling the ball of twine that distances you and I like frayed wire on the head of Shakespeare’s maiden. We are pulled apart, dissected, and labeled. We find identity in being separate, as alien as the concept may be.
The few disparate moments in Sonic Nurse, those that do not comply with the ethic of adhering to their past, the moments that feel unhinged from both the outside world and the insular warmth of Sonic Youth’s unseen omnipotence, fee almost like place holders for areas that are to be ventured in the future, placards that would read “coming soon” in the barren, cantankerous museum hall of our minds. Are you seeing the frayed ends of the devilish know? “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” (which made a previous appearance on a split record earlier this year as “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” … damn those fat wallets protecting Mariah’s good name!) is about as far as the band is willing to venture into the SYR-avant-garde the band quietly, independently releases. And even hear is a chorus, a verse, amid cacophony and grating noise this is still, unmistakably, a “song.” We can’t let our little chicks deviate too far from us, can we? While we’re here, discussing the rise of the Kim Gordon who can sing in a way that is actually listenable (at last!) (for once!), why not throw in some connections with the neophytes like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Peaches. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind. We’re all connected in here somewhere. Are you unraveling this knot like I am?
“It’s later than it seems,” the band warns on “Paper Cup Exit,” a building and tense song that wryly dares to remake a song that’s already been made before… new ears are listening. We are writing our own ending here, one that is continuing to be rewritten on the fly as we thrust forward, and parry to the left. [The end is coming soon now. Can you feel it? You’ve earned it. But, before you reach the concluding words in this rather long, uneventful treatise, I want to offer a bit of a warning. I intend to end with a quote from Sonic Youth that is not lifted from their last album. It’s going to be from an earlier album, one some would say is their most popular, others would say their best. I’m going to do this because – can you not see it by now? – the past and present and future have all commingled within the terms of Sonic Nurse. To look back we reach forward. Redeconstructionism gentrified, courtesy of Geffen Records for the unassuming time travelers at Best Buy and Amoeba Music. When I make this quote, I can say with a certain degree of confidence, I’m still quoting the present; by quoting a record from the ‘80s, I am directly quoting Sonic Nurse. My apologies for the lengthy interruption. On with the show.] Remember our past, connect it to the future, and with a massive power chord that’s improvised on the fly in a tuning that no one has yet invented, blow it away; a discarded kiss to everybody and nobody: “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation, daydreaming days in a daydream nation.”