Nature Is a Vacuum


Ever since I learned my girlfriend’s friend’s phrase “fake nature art,” I see the stuff everywhere (the Whitney Biennial brimmed with it)—fulgent fantasy approximations of hummingbirds and rainforests, pretty musings on human nurture and earth mothers denatured, hubba hubba. The Warholian wild, in other words. And since this is art-rock criticism, nothing fine about it, let’s stay sloppy going into Sonic Nurse. The video for “Peace Attack,” encoded on the enhanced CD, fairly shouts FNA: A man in a lime-green frog costume hops down the beach, hurriedly crosses a busy road, and jumps and sits, completing nicely balanced compositions. Amid a typical bramble of beat floetry (something about valley flowers, wartime, and a whistling earth), Thurston Moore sleepily declares, “Nature sucks.”

Well, it does abhor a vacuum. Which makes me think of something a friend said about Corporate Ghost, a worthwhile comp of SY videos from 1990 through 2002: She’s always thought the band articulated empty space. I’m not sure I agree. But their late, great work especially, 1995’s Washing Machine on, has the anarchic texture of emptiness filling up—or something clogged emptying out—a sloshing shapelessness, a piling on, cross-currents or spaghetti mounds of guitar corkscrews, funny melodies, yielding rhythms, and patchwork lyrics. Sonic Youth, taking arms against a sea of troubles, are the musical equivalent of mixed metaphors. As of 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, they’d somehow mastered the tides. (On 2000’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers, not so much.) Sonic Nurse, their first disc with Jim O’Rourke as a permanent member, percolates the same melancholy satisfaction and nervous maturity, entropy and growth, in and out—but with an urgency and impulsiveness that risks upsetting the balance.

There are snappy mix-tape cuts here: “Pattern Recognition” boasts a sharp guitar riff that could be a synth (not unlike that Strokes song “12:51”), taut bass-and-drum barreling like something off Goo, and a melodramatic chorus in which Kim Gordon yawps, cigarette-scraped, “You’re the one!” The breakdown, a mini-masterpiece of macabre sensuality, isn’t even gratuitous. The tunes aren’t necessarily easy to digest, as when a clenched Kim raps a cautionary tale—”Maybe you need an emo boy”; “How was your day with Eminem?”—to young Goos in “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” which cobbles sassily cooed chorus, fireworks displays, and strange-key swoons. But the five mostly move with grace, painting warped landscapes that focus on details, brushstrokes, drips, and squirts.

This is the fake nature art: pastorals derived from NYC noise. Sonic Youth admire and support young experimentalists like Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, the Animal Collective, and White Magic (who will open for SY at Webster Hall August 14)—vastly different bands, all city-dwelling, and all preoccupied in some way with the great outdoors. (The lovely two-minute intro to the bruise-hued “I Love You Golden Blue” pays homage to recent Black Dice.) Stylistically and subculturally, Sonic Youth are the Velvet Underground’s inheritors, yet in their slack and sunny moments give off ambrosial whiffs of the Grateful Dead. In the fleecy, borderline-twangy drift “Stones,” Thurston even intones, clear and casual, that “the dead are all right with me.”

No surprise there; SY have always hosted phantoms. Chuck D didn’t rap on Goo‘s “Kool Thing,” he haunted the track, promising “fear.” And what is feedback except a guitar’s escaped spirit? In addition to evoking ladies’ Halloween costumes, Richard Prince’s album art paintings, a series of sexy RNs in sheer masks, are embedded with apparitions: a country house, a leering man. It’s not fake nature art, but the force of Prince’s delicacy exactly matches Sonic Nurse‘s best moments, the sighs of their moon-pulled tides, the spray off an ocean full of life. If that sounds like floetry, or fauxetry, well, of course it is. It takes a ghostwriter to truly simulate nature sucking.

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