There is a self-fulfilling paradox for bands that stay together for any substantial length of time. It’s that one in which a band is expected to revisit the glory of their most successful album for the pleasure of fans and critics alike, despite the band’s desire to explore new material. Strangely enough, this very notion has been haunting Sonic Youth since the release of their masterwork, 1988’s Daydream Nation. In a way, the rich, swirling tapestries found on Daydream were the highest evolution of a type-cast musical character who had been emerging over the course of the seven full length LPs recorded by Sonic Youth from 1980 to ’87. Yet listeners have had a difficult time letting this character go over the past 12 years. Sure, Daydream is arguably the most influential modern rock album that you never heard of. But this very caricature which had been captured so brilliantly at its apex on Daydream has eroded the ability of Sonic Youth to continue to grow in the minds of their listeners and critics alike—even this one.
The success of this character that Sonic Youth honed during the ’80s was colored by a timbre of strangely tuned, dissonant guitars, surprising musical arrangements, and virtuosic control of amplifier feedback accompanied by an uncanny ability to wrap lyrics around impossible compositions. Quite simply, there was nothing else like it at the time. But during the mid- to late-’90s, Sonic Youth slowly distanced themselves from their forte with a string of poorly received albums epitomized by either formulaic compositions or random, almost sleepy 10-minute-plus songs that left listeners lost and unsatiated. Critics began to hint that maybe the band was uninterested in pushing the envelope anymore as age encroached (three of the four members are now above 40). Some even went so far as to suggest that they just hang it up all together.
As a result, seeing NYC Ghosts & Flowers on the shelf of the local music emporium presented a difficult consumer quandary: Should I skip it, since the last five Youth offerings were less than memorable? Or should I kick down the cash in hopes of rediscovering the amazement I once had with the band? Obviously the latter won out.
The first track, “free city rhymes,” marks a triumphant return for Sonic Youth, despite dancing precipitously close to the edge of being a blueprint of some of their earlier work. Perusing the liner notes, the song seems to be an attempt by SY front man Thurston Moore to capture an essence: the hustle and bustle of a city street. And “free city rhymes” accomplishes this goal magnificently. From its beginning blurts and bleeps of guitar to its descent into a grandiose multi-layered droning riffless finale, this song simply works on every conceivable level. It transforms itself from the sleepy haze of an urban pre-dawn into the fury of rush hour and back again into the dark. Here, Sonic Youth perform with remarkable restraint—only indulging in their feedback laden hubris just long enough to pull it all back together into sharp focus.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers does have its weaknesses, though, especially on the track “Nevermind (what was it anyway).” Both written and sung by bassist Kim Gordon, “Nevermind” is an obvious reference to Nirvana’s Goliath album of the same name. Long-time touring partners and critical darlings, both Nirvana and Sonic Youth had lived, recorded and performed under the radar of alternative rock for most of the late ’80s and early ’90s. After the release and mammoth success of Nevermind in 1991, however, both bands suddenly found themselves caught up in the flood of mainstream America’s interest in all things alternative. Yet for Sonic Youth, the honeymoon was short—their music was, for the most part, still too avant for FM radio. When Gordon wonders “nevermind, what was it anyway?” it’s hard to detect whether she’s being bitingly ironic or simply confused by her own nostalgia.
All is not lost, however, on the failure of one song, as the novel simplicity and childish rhyming of “Nevermind” juxtaposes itself nicely against the quiet and understated track “side2side.” Here, Gordon is exonerated for her sophomoric reminiscences with a curt, sly number punctuated with shimmering guitars strummed above the bit, ripe harmonics and equally attenuated, almost cryptic lyrics. Against a trademark descending bass line and gently controlled tracks of otherwise menacing feedback, Gordon coos, “meet me on the corner/Thursday/wear your/special underwear/sway side to side.” The effect is eerie, and downright sinister—but alluring, captivating and erotic all the same.
The subtle intensity of the composition and the understated sexuality hiding in the lyrics is reminiscent of the dynamic Gordon brought to Sonic Youth during the ’80s—a dynamic that has been missing for over a decade. “Side2side,” then, stirs up obvious and strong comparisons to “Shadow of a Doubt,” from 1986’s EVOL and “Halloween” off of 1985’s Bad Moon Rising, two songs of yore that testify as Gordon’s strongest contributions to Sonic Youth’s 20-year discography. Regardless of these comparisons, however, “side2side” stands alone as a great song for Sonic Youth, plain and simple.
Ultimately, NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the band’s best effort in a decade, and despite its few flaws, the album works well from beginning to end. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Sonic Youth can maintain their momentum into the future by presenting the world through their desconstructionist eyes, capturing the fury of existentialism, putting it in a blender and spilling it all over shining metal discs for all to hear.