It’s strange to think of a musical world without Sonic Youth, but in the wake of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s split, this is something we have to consider, since it leaves the band’s future “unknown.” It would be strange if the band threw in the towel, because it has somehow become a calming presence, a stabilizing example and reminder of the greatness and ambition rock music can have, even as we have spent the past few years shuffling quickly through a cycle of bogus trends.
Sonic Youth, perfect band name and all, encompasses what great rock bands should do: Hone a unique sound over years, attack our eardrums while still sneaking in spidery yet sweet tunes, and finally follow its own muse. All of this may have, for a second, been in jeopardy in 1990. On the heels of the acclaim for 1988’s Daydream Nation, one of the most celebrated rock albums of the last 25 years, Sonic Youth went looking for a major label. They had been indie rock trailblazers, cranking out classic record like Sister and EVOL on SST, the rocker’s rock label, and now they’d be on, gulp, DGC?
How this happened has much to do with Enigma Records, the label that (aligned with EMI and Capitol) screwed up the distribution of Daydream Nation, making it tough to find. So two years later the band signed to DGC — a sub-set of Geffen Records — and got ready to unleash a new record, Goo. At this point, long-time fans of the band had seen its sound change, and some purists didn’t like the apparent streamlining of their sound. But looking back at early records– even the best of them (Bad Moon Rising)– the ways in which the band improved are clear. Sonic Youth didn’t excise brash tendencies as it went, those oddities just got more potent. And because of this, though Daydream Nation is the indie rock record, it also made something clear: Sonic Youth needed a major label going forward.
The size of that record was downright cinematic, the songs intricate and brilliant. It’s a set that is as pristine as rock murk can be, and showed a buzzing expanse that demanded not only further exploration but the means with which to really delve into it. The result, with the backing of the major label, is Goo, a fantastic and crashingly big album, the kind of rock record that benefits from funding without being shaped by it. For all the indie-rock fear of all things non-DIY, Goo is here to remind us that — in the right hands — a major-label budget can make for a thing of beauty.
The big sound of this record starts with drummer Steve Shelley. His tight percussion was what drove previous albums to greatness, but here he gets huge. Apparently thanks to J Mascis’s advice that Shelley pick up a bigger kit, the drums here burst to life right from the get-go. Daydream‘s tight approach remains, but when we get to the break out at the end of “Dirty Boots,” it’s pretty clear Shelley is loving the freedom of the bigger kit and letting his sticks fly. His playing, up in the mix and with more tools to crash around, moves from being foundational to propulsive. Check his raucous chops on “Kool Thing,” or the simple pleasure of the cymbals on “Mote.” Shelley was always a great rock drummer, but here he reaches a new level simple by asserting himself into the sound. Even when the cymbals are pared back, on the tom-heavy “Mary-Christ,” his playing thumps with undeniable zeal. If the attention was on the wall of guitars on previous albums, here Shelley busts through that wall, only to patch himself into it.
And those guitars, oh those guitars, how impossibly big they sound here. Moore and Lee Ranaldo were always sharp, their serrated-edge riffs on Daydream Nation (among other records) a revelation, but here they weild big honking chainsaws. The fake-out of opener “Dirty Boots,” which starts with the same restraint as Daydream before exploding, is a great surprise since from there the riffs simultaneously tighten up and take on a more muscled size.
The fuzzed-out wall of sound on “Tunic (Song for Karen)” is a perfect conduit for the sweet afterlife the song portrays, while “Cinderella’s Big Score” grinds with moody guitar interplay. “Titanium Expose” is both a sharp riff and the most jagged, off-kilter sound on Goo, while “Disappearer” sands down the usual distorted edge of their sound to a beautiful, surprising effect that makes you think for a second you need your ears to pop. Kim Gordon’s bass ramps itself up here, too, giving rumbling depth to “My Friend Goo,” an expansive depth to the angular “Mary-Christ,” and a troubling underbelly to the already sinister sounding “Mote.”
The production here, as crisp as you expect a major-label record to be, doesn’t shine up the band’s sound, it amplifies its strengths. Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, Shelley — they all sound at the top of their game. And hell, they didn’t check their eccentricities at the door either. Gordon has plenty of spoken-word turns, including the excellent exchange with Public Enemy’s Chuck D on “Kool Thing.” But it’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” that still sticks out as a gem in the band’s catalog. Her account of Karen Carpenter singing from heaven of playing drums with some of her heroes may at first make you giggle. But that’s only because it’s emotion is so damned sincere. There’s no winking here, and the song’s sincerity is so pure it almost obscures itself, particularly coming from a band who (as indie rockers) should be more interested in angst and irony. Instead, “Tunic (Song for Karen)” goes for something heartfelt and honest, and thus highlights what separates Sonic Youth from so many of its peers. The rest of Goo, with its charging, volatile rock, shows that same purity of vision and power of sound, and whether you want to admit it or not, having more resources at their disposal brought that on.
It’s not Sonic Youth’s best album (that probably still belongs to Daydream, though this one’s close, as is Sister), and you can feel the group pulling on the major-label reigns a bit here and there. The broken-down squall on “Mote” works well enough, even if it stops the album’s momentum, but the screaming freak-out on “Mildred Pierce” feels a little self-conscious. In these moments, you’re reminded that — as in command of the sound as it is — this is still a band in transition, feeling out the uncharted territory of life on a major label. That transition, though, yielded something wonderful in Goo, a record as strong as any major-label debut around (there are moments that give Nevermind a run for its money), and kicks off the start of a decade where Sonic Youth and its musical ilk would create a series of classic and influential rock records.
So even if this new transition doesn’t yield a document as brilliant as Goo, we can look back at this album and take comfort in one thing: These players have been changing, shifting, and weathering storms since day one, so even if it turns out Sonic Youth as we know it is gone, don’t expect the players themselves to go quietly, or really to go at all.