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Sonic Youth: The Eternal (Matador)­

The alt-rock veterans’ new album shows them to be curators rather than innovators

The Eternal is an appropriate title for Sonic Youth’s 16th album: despite their name, the group has been around for decades. Often associated with the alternative rock scene of the early 1990s, the four core members were already ten years or so older than grungy contemporaries such as Nirvana. Two of them – the bassist Kim Gordon and the guitarist Thurston Moore – even have a teenage daughter, Coco, who is about old enough to be starting her own rock band. (Whether she wants to is another matter. At a Sonic Youth gig in Stockholm a couple of years ago, I spotted her sitting beside the stage, looking decidedly bored as her parents hurled their guitars around the stage and launched into the umpteenth white-noise freak-out of the evening.)

Yet, unlike the rock dinosaurs of an earlier generation – the calcified Rolling Stones in particular, who endlessly tour the world playing hits almost half a century old – Sonic Youth have retained their cool, negotiating a tricky path between artistic credibility and the demands of the entertainment industry. They emerged from the New York avant-garde of the early 1980s before signing in 1990 to a major label, Geffen (now part of Universal), where they remained for the best part of two decades. Although they have released a compilation, Hits Are for Squares (2008), through the coffee chain Starbucks and have guest-starred on The Simpsons, they see themselves as a political band. Gordon told the NS in a recent interview (4 May) that Sonic Youth offer “an alternative to mainstream music”.

But what kind of alternative, exactly? The band’s early records were exercises in unconventional tunings and song structures, which employed white noise, distortion and feedback as textural elements. They soon blended these avant-garde leanings with a more conventional rock sound, which reached its peak on 1988’s Daydream Nation. In recent years, the band have comfortably produced a more routine stew of crunchy riffs, simple melodies and gently psychedelic guitar explorations.

The Eternal, the band’s first release on the indie label Matador, is no different. Recorded in just a few days, the songs feel raw and energetic. “Sacred Trickster” kicks off the album in lively style with a pair of clanging guitars that are quickly swept up in a whirl of distorted, punky chords, over which Gordon sings, “I want you to levitate me” in her characteristic off-key yelp. “Anti-Orgasm” is a noisy stomp that descends into a melee of discordant, scraping guitar sounds, while “Antenna” chugs along in a pleasantly tuneful fashion, alternating between lazy solos and murmured vocals.

This is fine stuff, but atonal, vocal-less dance records have been able to top the charts for nearly two decades now, and so all the guitar-based dissonance has a comfortingly retro feel to it. Rather than pushing boundaries, Sonic Youth are a living compendium of North American guitar music, bearing traces of everything from the folky adventures of John Fahey to the avant-garde compositions of Glenn Branca, by way of Neil Young. Their work is always freighted with impeccable reference points – songs on The Eternal are variously inspired by the French artist Yves Klein (“Sacred Trickster”), the Beat poet Gregory Corso (“Leaky Lifeboat”) and the punk singer Darby Crash (“Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn”). Several band members also run their own small record labels, putting out an eclectic range of music. The writer Simon Reynolds has described Sonic Youth’s role as that of “curator”, giving their predominantly suburban audience an education in urban bohemia.

But is there anything to be said for the music itself? The idea of rock’n’roll as a liberating force has long been exposed as a myth – but Sonic Youth are well aware of music’s enduring power as a collective experience. Their live performances are refreshingly unpredictable, full of new material, improvisation and reworkings of old songs. And, by plugging away solidly for so many years, they have challenged the idea that pop should be a disposable commodity. Egalitarian (the band share songwriting duties), cultured, internationalist yet rootsy – Sonic Youth are, in a way, an embodiment of liberal America. They may not be happy with consumer capitalism, but they’ve tried to reach a compromise, and to infuse it with gentler values. With Barack Obama in the White House, this may well be the sound of the moment – but as recession bites, you have to wonder how long it will last.

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Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran