I’m not actually experienced in the department, but I imagine it must be pretty tough being Sonic Youth; as much pressure as reverence accompanies the band’s role as rock music’s reigning four-headed Methuselah.
On the one hand, Sonic Youth has an image to maintain – they were edgy before edgy became a buzzword. On the other hand, they are settling into their role as mentors for the alternative generation, a position which values experience and sagacity over innovation. How can Sonic Youth balance the two extremes? A Thousand Leaves, which hits stores today, is too torn by this question to provide any answers.
The opening track, “Contre le Sexisme,” seems engineered specifically to send mixed signals, signals which speak volumes about A Thousand Leaves as a whole. The song starts off with some odd guitar effects before evolving into a dream-like atmospheric study that places Kim Gordon’s vocals far in front of the instrumentation. The result: Sonic Youths edgiest work since Sister? Maybe not. Gordon’s mid-song childhood flashback (“Alice, she’s just a kitten!”) is a direct appropriation of a similar patch from “Little Trouble Girl” on 1996’s Washing Machine, perhaps the band’s most pop-oriented outing.
Nary a song goes by that does not reinforce this active contradiction. “Wildflower Soul” opens with atonal white noise before the pretty (and pretty standard) vocals of Thurston Moore establish it as a pop song, only to have a lengthy jam interrupt such a simple distinction. A noise band trying to convince itself it’s a pop band, or vice versa? “Ineffable Me” and “Snare, Girl” use backdrops from the emphatically experimental SYR EPs to support songs that feel at times unusually well-grounded. Is this self-constriction or self-evolution?
That A Thousand Leaves cannot answer these questions is a damn shame, because the band itself remains as strong as ever, if not stronger. In fact, this album may be the first Sonic Youth album since Daydream Nation that does not suffer from any obviously sub-par tracks. Much of this improvement can be credited to the refinement of Gordon’s vocal technique. Washing Machine, for example, was marred by the embarrassing “Panty Lies,” which found Kim grunting “she’s not wearing underwear” as if she were on steroids. Her vocals on “Ineffable Me,” and, to a lesser extent, “Female Mechanic on Duty,” cover the same abrasive terrain as “Panty Lies,” but they are actually digestible. Even the caterwauls at the end of “Ineffable Me” benefit from a pinch of Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney’s magnificent frontwoman).
Guitarist Moore, and the final member of the songwriting triumvirate, guitarist #2 Lee Ranaldo, return with more of the same stuff they did on Washing Machine. For the latter, there are song-stories inspired by beat poetry; for the former, plaintive pop-flavored ditties provide ample room for expansive noise jams. Ranaldo functions well in his genre: “Hoarfrost” is one of his strongest compositions, a terse yet grand vision that is nearly as transfixing as Washing Machine’s “Skip Tracer.”
Moore is a more difficult matter. His contributions are as solid as one could ask: “Sunday” drives along to a persistent chug; “Wildflower Soul” and “Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsburg) are genuinely beautiful at their finest moments. However, the juxtaposition of these tunes with Gordon’s style creates a confusing, and, yes, contradictory, statement about aging. Moore is too weary to get excited about the silver rocket burning a hole in his pocket, so he has moved on to wildflowers and singing children. On the other hand, Gordon used to be a vitriolic feminist; now she is, well, an older vitriolic feminist. These are both perfectly viable avenues of self-expression but how are we to reconcile the two (short of asking Camille Paglia, which I’m not about to do)?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with leaving these questions unanswered: it has been the mark of classic albums ever since Nevermind the Bollocks to leave you to decide where the line between politics and pap sits. Still, Nevermind gave you the material to make the decision; A Thousand Leaves does not.
What is left is 74 minutes of great music, music played with great proficiency and ingenuity, music that is consistently impressive and never transcendental. A Thousand Leaves has its share of great songs (the bookends “Contre le Sexisme” and “Heather Angel,” “Sunday”), solid songs (“Wildflower Soul,” “Female Mechanic on Duty”) and a couple of somewhat less impressive creatures (the overlong “Hits of Sunshine”); however, there is no ebb and flow, just a solid hum. A solid hum is the last thing we need or want from Sonic Youth.