Given short shrift on release, the reputation of the dense, chaotic, beat poetry-infused NYC Ghosts & Flowers has been burnished at least a little by time. The title track, which slowly builds over seven minutes from hushed intro to cacophonous climax, is the perfect example of the dark, bad-dream power the album wields at its best.
Sonic Youth’s first full album, Confusion Is Sex, was an abrasive leap forward from their awkward, half-formed debut EP. Thrillingly, you can almost hear the band finding themselves as Shaking Hell plays. It starts out like jerky post-punk funk, then suddenly transforms: an unsettling Kim Gordon monologue over brooding, tense, detuned guitar noise.
Sonic Youth’s final album, The Eternal, might have been the most straightforward they ever released, but then again, that’s a relative term. As Anti-Orgasm grippingly proves – spiky, clashing guitars; heaving, monotonal riff; beautiful, off-beam coda – it couldn’t have been the work of anyone else.
Apparently recorded over the master tape of 1987’s Sister, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star was a defiantly subdued, refusenik gesture in the wake of the post-Nirvana alt-rock gold rush. Its understated power is exemplified by the languid, Pavement-influenced Sweet Shine, disrupted by Gordon’s sudden shift to throat-shredding howl midway through.
Sonic Youth’s response to 9/11 offers a simple but affecting plea for unity in the face of horror: “Gather round, gather friend, never fear, never again.” The music, meanwhile, evokes the ghosts of New York’s past: there are moments where the guitars entwine around each other in a way that distinctly recalls Television.
The Manson murders had hung over rock music for 15 years by the time Sonic Youth recorded Death Valley ’69, a ferocious, viscerally powerful song written from the fractured point of view of a Manson Family member: the bloody, zero-budget video – by transgressive director Richard Kern – is the perfect accompaniment.
The lyrics of Candle defy explication – look online and you can find people suggesting they’re about everything from the purity of love to crystal meth addiction – but it hardly matters. The lengthy intro is sublime; the deft switches from something approaching straightforward alt-rock to explosions of noisy avant guitar are stunning.
You can hear the influence of grunge on the riff of 100%, a feedback-strafed eulogy for murdered friend Joe Cole. The brief moment at 1:49, where everything else drops out, leaving drummer Steve Shelley – a talent sometimes under-appreciated in the rush to praise the band’s radical approach to guitar playing – thundering away is just fantastic.
The band rampaging through Confusion Is Sex or Death Valley ’69 sounded like they might burn bright but fast, but Sonic Youth wore maturity incredibly well, as evidenced by 1998’s careworn Sunday. The Macaulay Culkin-starring video garnered headlines, but you want the full-length album version for the song’s guitar interplay in all its glory.
A fabulous anomaly in Sonic Youth’s catalogue, Little Trouble Girl was both an examination of preconceptions about teenage girls and a song that stripped away the band’s signature sounds in a gorgeous, warped homage to 60s girl groups – most specifically the angst-ridden Shangri-Las of I Can Never Go Home Anymore and Past, Present and Future.
On one hand, Starpower was Evol’s poppiest moment – the melody and lovestruck lyrics are irresistible – but if it’s pop, it’s a deeply idiosyncratic take on it: sandwiched between the verses and choruses are two minutes of improvised experimentation, including a burst of beatless noise that My Bloody Valentine clearly took note of.
A fabulous exercise in extremes. Karen Revisited begins as a gorgeous, bittersweet song about nostalgia, sung by Lee Ranaldo, that has something of mid-60s folk-rock about its melody. Then, this being Sonic Youth, all hell breaks loose for the next eight minutes: ear-splitting feedback, abstract echoing guitars, noise that’s alternately churning and spectral.
The critic David Fricke once suggested that, at full pelt, Sonic Youth sounded like a New York subway train screaming into a station: the ferocious improvised middle section of Silver Rocket proves his point. Plus you get three consecutive killer riffs in the song’s first 30 seconds alone.
Inspired by Mariah Carey’s early 00s public breakdown – the song originally featured her name in its title – Kim Gordon and the Arthur Conan Doyle Handcream offers a withering assessment of the music industry and media’s treatment of women, its furious mood mirrored by the broiling noise in the background. It also rocks.
The perfect encapsulation of Sonic Youth’s ugly/beautiful aesthetic, Kotton Krown sounds simultaneously blissed out – it’s not entirely clear if the lyrics, sung in unison by Thurston Moore and Gordon, are about love or drugs – and chaotic: the guitars flail around the vocals, the central riff slips in and out of tune, feedback screams. The overall effect is mind-blowing.
“If I was the leader,” suggested Moore, “every song would be 20 minutes long.” As it was, The Diamond Sea was the longest song Sonic Youth ever released on their “mainstream” albums. Shifting from atmospheric ballad into drone experiment and ultimately freeform noise, it’s completely captivating for its 19-minute duration.
1987’s Sister is such a start-to-finish triumph, it’s tough to pick out highlights, but the album’s opening track is definitely among them: a sweet tune; disturbing lyrics – inspired by Gordon’s mentally ill brother – nonchalantly crooned; a fabulous, chilling vocal cameo by Gordon; pealing, wildly inventive guitar playing; and a lengthy slow-motion fade.
The highlight of Goo was Sonic Youth’s moving tribute to Karen Carpenter – an attempt, Gordon said, to “liberate” the late singer – which dials down the sound of their detuned guitars slightly, focusing the listener’s attention on the lyrics’ astonishing exploration of fame, identity, mental health and posthumous reputation.
“Have you heard Expressway To Yr Skull?” enthused Neil Young. “It’s unbelievably good.” He was right. Also variously known as The Crucifixion of Sean Penn or Madonna, Sean and Me, the closing track on Evol remains one of the greatest things Sonic Youth recorded: a hypnotic, surging, euphoric song that gradually dissolves into oddly becalmed, droning noise.
You can’t get the full breadth of Sonic Youth’s oeuvre into 20 songs: no room for the experimental recordings released on their own Sonic Youth Recordings label; nor umpteen tracks fans might rightly claim as classics, from Halloween to Kool Thing to Sacred Trickster. Teen Age Riot seems an obvious No 1 – streaming figures suggest it’s by far their most popular song – but that shouldn’t cloud how incredible it is: an anthem devoid of cliche that streamlines their exploratory approach into something joyous and life-affirming without sacrificing an ounce of their originality. Had it been released a few years later, it would have been a huge, possibly over-familiar hit: as it is, it still sounds utterly fresh and vital.
Live in Austin 1995 and Live in Dallas 2006 are available now on Bandcamp