The cover of 1995’s Washing Machine is a good metaphor for famous people given shout-outs in Sonic Youth songs: The band simultaneously grants the titular appliance Importance and reduces it to a T-shirt figment. Think of these guys as an alternate-universe Perez Hilton, drawing meaningless dots and squiggles on celebrity culture. It’s not quite vandalism, but no one wove poker-faced pop irony so deeply into a rock ‘n’ roll aesthetic before Slanted and Enchanted or the early-aughts trucker-hat revival. Remember that the alternate title for “Expressway to Yr. Skull” is “Madonna, Sean and Me.”
So Kim Gordon is a one-woman Factory who silkscreens Karen Carpenter and Mariah Carey instead of Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn, while Thurston Moore has to be the least-lecherous 50-year-old to ever hang out on the Gossip Girl set. Tragic heroes from Sonic Youth’s past include Johnny Winter, SST Records, and Anita Hill. Inspirations include Ginsberg, Burroughs, the Manson Family Ranch, and Mary-Christ. But excepting Sonic Youth’s great many heartfelt tributes to their beloved New York City, barely any of these tribute tunes make their feelings about their selected characters known: They’re merely occupants, ghosts to frame and haunt their melodies with signs and billboards posted along the lonely highway to the center of yr. skull.
But switching labels suggests the celebrity thing was all a fad—The Eternal, their Matador debut, is awash in dedications to relative outsiders. Singular oddball John Fahey did the cover art. The guitars, extra-thick as opposed to their wiry usual, are (presumably) an homage to the Stooges’ Ron Asheton, who’s mourned in the liner notes. “Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)” aims to expound on the Beat poet’s depiction of the world as such, but in typically diffuse fashion never clears the free-associative smoke. And yet the music’s just the opposite: fairly organized (for them) chord shapes, on-the-beat phrasing, more chorus than verse, less harmelodic noodling. “Everything we see is clear/Everything we feel is clear/Everything we dream is clear” is a harrowing prophecy from a group (with an underrated psychedelic side) that I never want to actually reach the end of the tunnel. Watching them muck around for light has been such a reward that it’s hard to accept these relatively simplistic tunes.
Of course, it would help if there weren’t so many reductions of better SY songs here. “Calming the Snake” uses the same “Come on down/Down to the river” line Gordon threatened more sinuously on “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway),” while “Malibu Gas Station” is a medley of the usual suspects (coy sexuality, Sonic Nurse drive, spooky finger-plucked intro). And I wish I knew more about the Berlin “model/activist” who inspired the Stooge-y “Anti-Orgasm” and its (parodic?) “Penetration destroys the party/Violation of a cosmic body” chants.
The Eternal feels clear indeed, like a window with nothing on the other side. For a band so historically evocative to make such a blankly them record after two decades of truly gunning it (yep, no missteps, not even NYC Ghosts and Flowers) is only natural. But to celebrate the freedom from their supposedly stifling tenure at the majors with a release of creativity so expedient you it could call it their No Line on the Horizon—established legends doing established things, and not particularly well for them, either—is a little troubling. The title “Massage the History” suggests they’ll always know someone new to celebrate. The title “What We Know” suggests they seek new knowledge. But for the first time since the crucial addition of drummer Steve Shelley in 1985, the new Sonic Youth album doesn’t offer much.
Sonic Youth play the United Palace Theatre July 3