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Old and in the Way

[whitespace] Sonic Youth Failure to E.V.O.L.: The '80s is the only decade that Sonic Youth (from left, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley) understands.

Christian Lantry

Sonic Youth squanders its talent on a new album that sounds very old

By Gina Arnold

REMEMBER THE famous biblical parable about a group of men who are given some talents? Some of the men double and triple their stores of wealth, but one man buries his in the ground, and at the end of a few years, of course, he still has only a single talent.

That fable, a cautionary tale about the perils of miserliness, is also applicable to rock, particularly when it comes to Sonic Youth. Fifteen years ago, the four-piece noise-rock outfit from New York used a modest level of familiarity with avant-garde guitar techniques to invent a sound and style that has been highly influential in the underground music scene ever since.

But judging by Sonic Youth's new record, A Thousand Leaves (Geffen), the band may as well have buried its talent in the ground, so slavishly has it stuck to the tenets it laid out for itself in the early-'80s.

A Thousand Leaves is filled with the same pinging tones, harsh rhythms and droning song structures as all the band's other albums, but it lacks even a semblance of Sonic Youth's former appeal. It sounds as if it could have been recorded in 1985, and even then it falls short of that year's masterpiece, Bad Moon Rising.

On that album and others, Sonic Youth explored the dark side of pop culture, writing songs about junkies, groupies, teen idols and serial killers. A Thousand Leaves doesn't even have that much pep. On the single "Sunday," for example, a note-for-note lift from the Velvet Underground, guitarist Thurston Moore sings, "Sunday comes along again/a perfect day for a quiet friend."

"Sunday" exposes some of Sonic Youth's lifelong weaknesses. Its members--Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley--are neither good singers nor good tunesmiths, and unabashedly so. They try to make up for these shortcomings with creative guitar textures and tones, but the result, here, doesn't seem worth the effort. Indeed, the record is almost incoherent, a jumble of familiar chords and pretentious bad poetry and spoken-word elements. It practically resembles a Saturday Night Live skit, making fun of downtown New York bohos who think their every musing is deep.

Sonic Youth has another problem as well. The world abounds with bands that aren't given their due, but Sonic Youth suffers from the opposite sensation. Formed in 1981, it has received nothing but rave reviews for years, some merited, some not. In the late '80s, it released the seminal albums E.V.O.L. and Sister on the SST label and Daydream Nation on Blast First. In 1990, the band went major, signing with Geffen and releasing Goo, a record that did manage to expound on its style in a more popular context: "Kool Thing" and "Song for Karen" may be the most radio-friendly things Sonic Youth has released to date.

GUITARIST MOORE often takes credit for bringing Nirvana to Geffen's notice; the band opened for Sonic Youth on its 1991 U.S. and European tours. But the adoring pupils--whose sound has nothing in common with their mentors'--exceeded their master's voice almost instantly, going platinum and achieving the kind of mainstream influence and belovedness that Sonic Youth could only dream of.

Nirvana continued to tout Sonic Youth's influence for years afterward, but nothing it said could make the general public truly like the torpid Sonic Youth albums that followed (Dirty, Experimental Jet-Set, Trash and No Star, Washing Machine). With the possible exception of "Kool Thing" and an earlier track that was used to good effect in the recent French film Irma Vep, the band has never released a song dynamic enough to capture the attention of anyone not caught up in the Byzantine world of indie rock. Nothing it does stands on its own, outside the context of that world.

Now, that's not a crime in any sense of the word; many good songs aren't successful or even accessible. But for Sonic Youth to deserve its exalted reputation in the rock world it really ought to have had a slightly higher level of acceptance by this time. Think of the Butthole Surfers, whose career history is chronologically parallel to Sonic Youth's, and who, like those biblical men, tripled their worth. In 1984, they were skronking out noise-rock with the best of them; by 1996, they had recorded "Pepper," a brilliant number that combined Butthole's trademark musical elements with various irresistible modern trends. "Pepper" was a giant hit.

That's the history one would like Sonic Youth to have had--but it hasn't, because its talent remains buried. And so A Thousand Leaves maunders on, including lowlights like "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)," a droning Renaldo-sung tune that features the most sophomoric lyrics ever written (and we're talking high school, not college), and "Heather Angel," with vocals squawked and spoken by bassist Gordon in a painful-to-listen-to stream-of-consciousness rant: "I want to dance--I want my books and records ... eeeeuw!--ahhh. Goodbye! Stop!" The similarly stupid and/or narcissistic utterances of "Contre Le Sexisme" almost defy belief--and unfortunately, it's the opening track.

Such songs expose Sonic Youth's fearful lack of anything to say, but then, in that sense, Sonic Youth is very much a product of its times, and one aspect of that fact is the band's extreme apolitical stance. Some of their early subject matter passed itself off as being social commentary, but in fact it was merely voyeuristic, more like a highbrow form of Jerry Springer than, say, a heartfelt or analytical assessment of current social trends.

The band's economic decisions have been similarly indicative of its era. Though once touted as leaders of the new school of independence for its adherence to indie labels, Sonic Youth went to a major label as soon as it could, and in retrospect, this seems a very '90s move. Alas, listening to A Thousand Leaves, I was forced to re-evaluate one of the seminal bands of my 20s, and the truth is, it doesn't didn't hold up well at all. I found myself thinking, "How could I possibly have thought this kind of stuff was meaningful or neat? And if they're this stomach-churningly pretentious now, how pretentious was I back then to have bought it?"

Of course, that's hindsight. There was a time when the juxtaposition of soft acoustic strummings and atonal retunings was phenomenally original, when the sonic world of Sonic Youth seemed "chillingly beautiful," as its fans often describe it. No longer. The best is definitely behind Sonic Youth, and what lies ahead is no fun to contemplate--much less to listen to.

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From the May 7-13, 1998 issue of Metro.

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