As musical terrorists cum sonic alchemists, Sonic Youth have always pursued an elusive point of no return: a shining path that might turn into a yellow brick expressway. But a couple years ago, they found themselves in the heart of the imaginary heart of the country, as the much-vaunted “Hullabalooza” tour arrived in Springfield U.S.A. (a/k/a Chernobyl West), hometown of The Simpsons. Suddenly they were surrounded by oafish cartoon characters: Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton. Hardly the first rock/toon intersection (don’t we all have fond memories of Natasha Fatale’s brief stint with the Velvet Underground?), this was a strange fate nonetheless: finally crossing the mainstream’s Rubicon only to find Homer Simpson waiting for them on the other side.
Recruited as the star attraction of Hullabalooza’s wonderfully named “Pageant of the Transmundane,” his native genius for futility put the “music and advertising and youth-oriented product placement” industry (as Kim Gordon had it) to shame. (“If one believes Homer,” guest-star Albert Camus said in a previous episode, “Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals.”) Playing “The Simpsons Theme” over the show’s closing credits, Sonic Youth seemed to be signaling that the dream (and the Daydream Nation) was over, ending not with a whimper but a collective “D’oh!”
Listening to the new A Thousand Leaves (DGC) though, one must imagine Sonic Youth happy. Over the past few years, the band had reached the limit of public acceptance and seemed directionless. A Thousand Leaves recovers a sense of distance, a perspective on rock as an engine of myth–a means of suppressing knowledge that can be pressed to disclose it. It’s a weirdly euphoric album, longer and more varied than even the ambitious sprawl of Daydream Nation: instead of lighting a Gerhard Richter “Candle” in the pop wilderness, A Thousand Leaves is more a bonfire-sale of the mythologies. (All Rock Gods & Goddesses 1/2 Off, a free Oracle with every purchase while supplies last.) Thurston Moore has said this is about “giving up on punk as any sort of an identity,” turning toward free-improv and modern-classical experimentalism. (Hence the three instrumental EPs the band released last year, mostly 10-to-30-minute structuralist jams trafficking in avant-garage gestures: a little woolly-Boulez, a lot of Xenakis-as-Mantovani.)
But Moore went on to use the word “absurdia,” which has been the key for Sonic Youth ever since that dream-struck moment when he first sang “We’re gonna kill the California girls.” As the undead shibboleths keep rising from their graves, they must be killed, over and over again. On “Karen Koltrane,” Lee Ranaldo does a pitch-perfect impersonation of Michael Stipe’s vampiristic sensitivity (“She’s alone in her room…/I was tethered to her for a time”), but little by little the song undermines both the cadences and mystique it recalls–the legacy of R.E.M. as latter-day Byrds (not to mention saints), the putative influence of John C. on “Eight Miles High”–floating the possibility that Stipe could just be Karen and Richard’s lost love child (look at those cheekbones). “Karen Koltrane” situates R.E.M. as indie rock’s answer to the Carpenters and an infectious form of the anorexia that took Karen to that big Birdland in the sky.
The thing about fractured fairy tales is while they look deceptively simple, they’re riddled with gnomic connections, enigmatic feedback, parables illuminated by the rosy light of burning bridges. A Thousand Leaves starts out with the almost comically daunting “Contre le Sexisme,” a four-minute distillation of the EPs’ willful atonality that’s as far from radio-friendly as Confusion Is Sex was. Still it’s playful and even lighthearted, Kim Gordon calling “Alice, Alice” as the band plinks and scrapes away behind her like a chamber-pot orchestra. Following it, “Sunday” is really shocking–a completely straightforward song that builds inexorably from a modest rhythm-guitar riff. Next comes “Female Mechanic on Duty,” more off-kilter jolts, Gordon turning the machinery inside out, pulling at wires in the abstracted way of Medusa fixing her hairdo in a rearview mirror.
So the album goes, back and forth between the austere and the ingratiating: what fun is a one-way street if you don’t attempt U-turns in the middle of it? That much of the material assumes a child’s-eye view quickly becomes obvious here (in the case of the mawkish albeit gorgeous “Wildflower Soul,” maybe a touch too obvious). But it’s hard to begrudge the lysergic frivolity of “Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg),” which features a madly fey vocal from Moore (imagine Huck Finn trying to pass himself off as Ginsberg or maybe Allen trying to entice Huck back to the raft) and a psychedelic backdrop so perfectly ridiculous it may finally ring the wah-wah pedal’s death-knell forever. “Snare, Girl” is only a fraction removed in tone, but in that fraction lies a secret garden of totems: “I bring you news from the kingdom/Of disciples in ruins.” This is very close to the country of childhood in Rebecca Miller’s movie Angela, where a young girl and her sister construct and then live out a whole private cosmology of sin and redemption: since children combine innate skepticism with fervent belief, they make the best gnostics.
In “The Ineffable Me,” Gordon issues the gloriously bratty, wild-child warning, “Hey translator/You can’t catch me.” At the same time, it’s an irresistible dare: to follow Alice into another world, a looking-glass film where she carjacks Chuck Berry’s Airmobile and crashes into (or out of) Walter Benjamin’s Arcades. A Thousand Leaves works as a soundtrack to such an imaginary movie, in keeping with the fact that some of the most indelible sequences in this decade’s films have been structured around Sonic Youth’s music: Elina Lowensohn and company dancing to “Kool Thing” in Simple Men, Maggie Cheung’s breathtaking midnight drift to “Tunic” in Irma Vep. The idea–absurdia as genre, punk as late-show noir–isn’t new, but goes back to early Sonic Youth touchstones like “Shadow of a Doubt.” And one source for them is the half-forgotten 1980 Swell Maps record In “Jane From Occupied Europe“: a murky, rattling dream of Second World War sagas turning into the political unconscious of so-called civilian life, a war that never really stopped but simply changed uniforms, insignias, and marching orders. (Essentially the sound of Thomas Pynchon’s Paranoids if they’d parachuted behind the lines of Gravity’s Rainbow.) Dispersed into the fabric of everyday life, the enemy becomes invisible, collaboration turns into the norm, and resistance assumes the aspect of a dream. Phantasm establishes the beachhead A Thousand Leaves claims: here’s Sonic Youth in “Alice From Occupied America,” poking around the underbelly of Wonderland, looking for whatever happens next…