Discovering Sonic Youth
Can the band’s new music be heard over the din of 25 years of critical acclaim?
I’m holding a copy of Sonic Youth’s Rather Ripped, the latest album from a band that has been around for a quarter-century. I’m absent-mindedly flipping through the liner notes, about to put the CD on the stereo, when it suddenly hits me.
“Oh, crap. I forgot about Sonic Youth.”
I don’t mean I forgot the album was coming out, or I forgot how good Sonic Youth is. I mean I forgot to know anything about Sonic Youth—at all. My credibility as a music writer and insufferable know-it-all is on the line.
“OK, take it easy,” I tell myself. “This is gonna be all right.” I quickly consult rock-critic CliffsNotes: All Music Guide, Wikipedia and fan Web sites. I scour the library for a copy of Alec Foege’s biography Confusion is Next: The Sonic Youth Story. I download MP3s and play Rather Ripped on repeat.
I like the music, which mostly conforms to whatever peripheral information about Sonic Youth has seeped into my brain over the years. It’s a solid rock album, all crisp guitars and singable melodies. Overall, the record is less weird, less post-punk and noisy than I’d been coached to expect from a band that has retained its “outsider” status after a long haul on a major label. The best songs are the quietest, like “Or,” on which Thurston Moore’s hushed vocals and detached musing about pop music (“what comes first / the music or the words”) snuggle up to the spacious music as it fades into nothing.
But Sonic Youth—the noise band, the pop band, the post-punk band, the myth, the indie heroes of the late 20th century—does not really exist in these new songs, which are by turns things of quiet beauty and blissful dissonance. Sonic Youth has been constructed in the minds of people who already love them.
See, Sonic Youth is a Band You’re Supposed to Like (BYSL). And as is the case with other BYSLs (the Pixies, Big Star, Eric B. & Rakim—there are dozens), it is already too late to become a fan without seeming like a bandwagon-hopping sycophant.
Most active BYSLs, although genuinely good and often artistically risky and exciting, are signed to major labels and have a PR money machine backing them up. We have all heard of them, and their new albums will be on sale everywhere. But if one does manage to become an honest, devoted fan of a BYSL, it is not by purchasing a loss-leader-priced copy of its new record at Best Buy.
The fourth-century theologian St. Augustine wrote, “Unless ye believe, ye shall not understand.” This statement captures the mysticism of Sonic Youth fandom and of BYSL devotees of all stripes. There is a big difference between knowing Sonic Youth is an “important” band with a place of honor in the indie canon and loving, really loving, its music.
The title of the third track on Rather Ripped deftly limns this distinction. Moore’s surprisingly reverent ballad is called “Do You Believe in Rapture?” Despite the song’s subject matter—Jesus, theology and what have you—Moore is not asking about the Rapture in that Left Behind sense, but rapture in its emotional, ecstatic meaning: the feeling of being transported by love, or passion, or music.
I want to believe in the rapture of Sonic Youth. The truth is that it is probably too late for me. After numerous listens to Rather Ripped, I begin to see a glimpse of what people love about this band: the nimble guitar interplay and Moore and Kim Gordon’s shambolic sexiness. But I can’t feel genuine fandom or love for Sonic Youth from an overnighted Geffen promo.
Those fans who really love Sonic Youth, whose older sisters gave them an old copy of Daydream Nation or who picked up Goo at a yard sale or who saw them at CBGB 25 years ago, believe in rapture. I may be doomed to remain a Sonic Youth agnostic for eternity, but for you the magic may yet be available. You can always give it a shot.