Go to any Sonic Youth show on their current tour and you’ll see an extraordinary thing. Up on stage will be five adults, four of whom are approaching or past age fifty, playing gorgeously ragged rock ‘n’ roll to a packed house full of teenagers and young adults at least thirty years their junior. Maybe a handful of aging artists are still performing to their original demographic, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one that’s maintained as consistent a line-up as has Sonic Youth throughout its more than twenty years of existence, and you surely couldn’t find one that has maintained such an unfailingly high level of experimentation throughout. Knowing Thurston Moore and Co. are still sculpting their little feedback symphonies is a real comfort amid the uncertainties of, to borrow a cliche, a post-September 11 world.
With Sonic Nurse, it’s truly possible to see 2000’s excruciatingly indulgent NYC Ghosts and Flowers as a speed bump on an otherwise smooth decade of record-making. Their last, 2002’s bittersweet Murray Street, was a return to form, and the epic Sonic Nurse will only supply more evidence for Sonic Youth’s canonization.
Adding alt-rock Renaissance man Jim O’Rourke as producer and third guitarist was a stroke of genius. Not that Lee Ranaldo and Moore have been slacking, but O’Rourke’s extra axe has given Sonic Youth’s recent records a melodic depth that fits their music’s new-found maturity perfectly. On “Stones,” the three New Yorkers weave one of the better guitar lines in the band’s catalogue — heartrending one moment, raging the next — over Moore’s proclamations that the “the dead are alive with me.” “Dripping Dream” and opener “Pattern Recognition” are perfect examples of this new Sonic Youth — substantive compositions that rein in the fuzz just enough to keep the melodies hummable and the riffs fresh. And for a band born in the fresh-faced recklessness of New York’s post-punk explosion, it’s a testament to their continued power that they can tackle a subject as patently un-youth as abusive relationships on the chilling “Unmade Bed.” Over guitars that bubble and fuzz ominously, Moore describes a “hit and run lover” who “just needs a friend,” and the desperate woman who takes him back.
For an album that makes world-weary wisdom from a bunch of half-century old punks seem so potent, “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” the bassist’s critique of Mariah Carey, is a weak-willed and unnecessary exercise in cultural criticism. Gordon’s grunted barbs sound forced, and the painfully familiar atonal gymnastics are wholly unconvincing. Fortunately, this is the exception. Sonic Nurse isn’t concerned with rehashing old glories or over-indulgent experimentation — it’s the sound of a band with nothing left to prove and a lot to be proud of.
On “Paper Cup Exit,” one of Ranaldo’s stream-of-consciousness rave-ups, the guitarist proclaims menacingly, “It’s later than it seems. Time everyone came clean.” Thankfully, Sonic Youth is taking its own advice.