Sonic Youth is one of the most important bands of the last twenty-five years. Their unconventional playing, disregard for structure and unbridled creativity has put them in a place so far removed from other bands that they basically have no real contemporaries. Their latest release, Sonic Nurse, finds the band combining elements of all three of their career phases to masterful perfection.
For the first few albums of their career, Sonic Youth created frightening, chaotic and dark music that thrived on the bizarre and discordant. Beginning with 1986’s Evol (also being somewhat hinted at with 1985’s Bad Mood Rising), the band began to show that they may be looking to make more conventional music — at least structure wise. However, 1987’s Sister marks the true beginning of Sonic Youth’s second phase, that of indie-rock gods, creating a type of angular post-punk that up until that time had not even been hypothesized. They took the elements of their bizarre early career of awkwardly tuned guitars, dissonance and strangeness and combined them with elements of more straight-forward punk rock, making one of the most incredible and inspiring sounds ever to be put to tape. Sister and the now legendary Daydream Nation forever immortalized them as the true kings of late 1980’s indie rock.
This second phase continued with a jump to a major label in 1990, the underrated Goo and the immensely heavy Dirty (the title being a joking response to the “grunge” craze). In 1994, the band began to hint that another phase would be coming in the future. Their confused, yet exceptional Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star showed elements of the softer side that would soon define the band in coming years.
Washing Machine began the band’s latest phase, one of softer textures, warm noise and introspection. The albums released since (and including) Washing Machine have been, to me, the band’s best. Their penchant for warmth, tonal droning and soothing vocals has been nothing short of a divine occurrence.
Sonic Nurse is not the kind of album that one would expect from a bunch of forty-somethings. They still push the envelope, going from the very Goo-esque “Pattern Recognition,” with it’s whining guitars and Kim Gordon’s sultry vocals, to the later phase Sonic Youth sounding “Unmade Bed.” “Dripping Dream” sounds like it could be a Sister b-side, with its underlying screams of guitar feedback. “Kim Gordon and the Aurthur Doyle Hand Cream” borrows from Dirty, with heavy guitars and droning noises. “Dude Ranch Nurse” sounds very much like it could have come from the Washing Machine sessions, as it plods along at a comfortable pace, with warm guitars abounding. “New Hampshire” features a fevered drum beat that recalls Sister. The wailing guitars of “Paper Cup Exit” are entirely reminiscent of Bad Moon Rising. “I Love You Golden Blue” showcases the band’s very early career, harking back to their experimental classic Confusion is Sex. The guitars repetitively moan and groan with complete satisfaction. The album’s closer is a beautifully written song, entitled “Peace Attack.” It reminds me of later-era Sonic Youth, with the wandersome guitars of Evol thrown in for good measure.
Doubtless, this is the best album that Sonic Youth has done since Washing Machine. I know many people lost interest in them several years ago, after the release of the clumsy NYC Ghosts & Flowers, but fans of the band should definitely not hesitate to pick this one up. Sonic Nurse is stunning and gorgeous. It’s so good that it nearly brought me to tears. Literally.
Sonic Youth: www.sonicyouth.com