What do you do when your favorite band starts sucking? Stop buying their albums. But what if you can’t, because you’re so into them that you just have to know every note they record, even if it’s unlistenable crap? And you have such a personal connection to this band that skipping their latest release feels like missing a family member’s wedding (or funeral, as the case may be)? Then, you grit your teeth and bear it, hoping that your beloved rock stars get their heads out of their asses. Or you beg them to break up and put you out of your misery.
Sonic Youth, please break up.
As a band, you’ve been around as long as I’ve been on this earth. You have summer houses in Western Massachusetts. You opened for Pearl Jam. You’re on a rotting, almost nonexistent major label. For a group that has always relied so heavily on the currency of cool, these aren’t very encouraging signs.
I have become increasingly convinced that rock bands, like cartons of milk, have expiration dates beyond which consumption is hazardous. Unfortunately, too many bands keep playing while the mold grows on their guitars. (OK, so there are exceptions. Those last Go-Betweens and Dolly Parton records were pretty great. And there are plenty of young bands who go stale after one single or album, not to mention those groups that shouldn’t have recorded anything in the first place. So it really doesn’t have to do with age.)
Sonic Youth, I’d like to let you know that the spores have been festering since 1995, when you released your last good album, Washing Machine. Admittedly, had someone proposed this idea to me in 1995, I would have cried. That was the beginning of high school for me, and not coincidentally, the beginning of my obsession with you. Having outgrown Kurt and Courtney, I was seduced by your sophistication, your artiness, your appropriately quotable lyrics (“UNITY IS NOT TAUGHT IN SCHOOL,” “IT TAKES A TEENAGE RIOT TO GET ME OUT OF BED” scrawled in the margins of my biology notes), and, of course, your guitar pyrotechnics. I gobbled up as much of your massive discography as I could, gleefully suffering through countless side projects, solo albums, collaborations, and B-sides. Your appearance on The Simpsons was, like, the highlight of my life. With a friend, I created a fanzine devoted to you. (Please don’t ask to see it, it’s really embarrassing.) I remained devoted throughout high school; on my senior-yearbook page, I thanked my family, my friends, and Sonic Youth. And why do you think I came to New York City to go to college?
But a curious thing happened the summer after my freshman year: You made an album I hated. Not some weird one-off on your vanity label (like that one where you covered John Cage and beat up pianos and shit), but a Big Heavily Promoted Major Label Album, nyc ghosts & flowers. Faux-beatnik mumbo-jumbo, aimless, tuneless meanderings, and general stagnation made it limp like a three-legged dog. In your latest press release, nycgf is described as “langorous” (sic). When I look up “languor” on dictionary.com, it has a few definitions. The second one may be “a dreamy, lazy mood or quality,” but the first one is “lack of physical or mental energy; listlessness.” So maybe you guys know the record blew chunks. A Thousand Leaves, the album in between Washing Machine and nycgf, wasn’t so hot either, but it had its gripping moments—like the pastoral “Wildflower Soul,” and “Sunday,” the rockin’ single with the Macauley Culkin make-out video. Besides, I was caught in the throes of passion at the time; in 1998, you could do no wrong.
But now you can. I’m afraid my disappointment continues with Murray Street. The new album isn’t terrible, just dull. The noisy parts aren’t noisy enough and the pretty parts aren’t pretty enough. Jim O’Rourke is apparently a full-time member of the band now, but but he seems to have been too busy launching Wilco into the stratosphere to get you guys off the ground. And all that talk about the influence of September 11 on the record (quoth the press release: “Murray Street is [ostensibly] named after the location of Sonic Youth’s studio. . . . Murray Street is where one of the engines from the planes that hit the Twin Towers landed”) sure didn’t amount to much beyond the album artwork. Well, the lyrics to “Rain on Tin” might allude to it, but then again, they might not.
You’re still masters of suspense, skillfully building and building and building tension. But the foreplay, which once heralded glorious noise orgasms in “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Dirty Boots,” now leads to nothing but flaccidity and frustration. Many tracks follow your trademark “Expressway to Yr Skull” verse/chorus/extended-instrumental-noize-attack formula that may have seemed revolutionary back in 1986, but just sounds predictable 16 years later. And the lyrics? Not one quoteworthy tidbit in the lot, unless “Get yr hands off my tomato/cherry juice on a rotten potato” counts. The epic majesty last heard on Washing Machine‘s “The Diamond Sea” is still MIA. If Murray Street didn’t have the name “Sonic Youth” attached to it, nobody would give it a second listen. . . . Well, maybe for “Plastic Sun,” in which guitars simulate a traffic jam, Kim Gordon rants like she has PMS, and it’s all over in just over two minutes. Or for Lee Ranaldo’s “Karen Revisited,” which, like most Lee songs, possesses a mysterious quality that causes my knees to weaken and my heart to go pitter-patter. But those two songs are tiny ships in a sea of okayness.
I wish it didn’t have to be that way. The bargain bin is already overflowing with efforts by bands who have overstayed their welcome. Why not reduce future clutter? Your place in rock history is certainly secure, what with you basically reinventing the sound of the electric guitar and influencing, like, every cool rock band in the past decade. You’ve released more than enough material to tide us over for years to come. Plus, the time and money that we would have spent on your concerts and new releases could go to the younger, more exciting bands you’ve always championed and mentored.
Please think about it, Sonic Youth. Calling it quits would allow you to spend more time with your kids, your spouses, your record labels and clothing companies and art exhibitions. Or you could just sit around reflecting on how cool you are. You must be tired after all these years. You deserve a long vacation. But everything I’ve said here should come as no surprise. After all, aren’t you the band that told me to kill my idols?