In 1991, Sonic Youth went on tourwith Neil Young & Crazy Horse, opening for the shaggy legend in arenas nationwide. A decade into their career, the New York quartet had recently released their first major-label album, Goo; traded in some of their expansive soundscapes for a leaner, punchier sound; and scored their first FM-radio near-hit, “Kool Thing.” Meanwhile, Young – whose sprawling musical meditations had been discovered by the alternative movement for which Sonic Youth had set the stage – had earned an unlikely (and mercifully short-lived) moniker: “the Godfather of Grunge.” For a moment, it looked as though there was going to be a grand reconciliation between “alternative” musicians and the classic-rockers to whom bands like Sonic Youth were supposed to provide the option.
The tour was basically a disaster. No matter how good it looked on paper to pair the new, feedback-loving guitar anti-heroes with the old-school, feedback-loving six-string expressionist, Sonic Youth proved too experimental for your average classic-rock concertgoer. Young’s fans gave the openers the finger, covered their ears, and left horrified. Thus were jaded hipsters and aging boomers alike reminded that avant-garde art still has the power to shock, to infuriate, and to move people – if only toward the exits.
On their new album, A Thousand Leaves (DGC), Sonic Youth are even farther from mainstream pop than they were on any of their four previous major-label releases. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo skitter and wail; the group stretches out on plenty of songs, improvising its way through hypnotic instrumental passages. The album’s lyrics – by Moore, Ranaldo, and bassist-singer Kim Gordon – range from poetic opacity to cerebral playfulness, with the occasional political rumination thrown in.
This isn’t to say A Thousand Leaves is inaccessible: It’s Sonic Youth’s best album since their 1988 landmark, Daydream Nation. The beauty of Sonic Youth is their counterintuitive knack for balancing off-kilter musicianship with catchy hooks and chugging beats. Their sound is as difficult for hard-core experimental-music aficionados to swallow as it was for the Neil Young fans. Which makes them uncategorizable – and therefore that much more of a challenge to the status quo.
“Sunday,” the first single from the album, is a Thurston Moore classic – a delicate two-chord riff suspended above Steve Shelley’s propulsive drumming. As with all the best Sonic Youth songs, the heart of “Sunday” is its sense of melancholy. “Sunday always seems to move so slow,” Moore sings. Midway through the song, immediately after he delivers the lines “Why can’t I set you free? Will you do the same for me?” the band shatters the fragile mood with a squealing, distortion-soaked explosion. Just as quickly, though, the song gracefully resolves back into its easygoing melody.
Moore’s been dabbling in free jazz for several years now, jamming with the likes of William Hooker and Rashied Ali. Paradoxically, though, he’s also the most pop songwriter in the band: For all Moore’s weird guitar tunings and dissonant chord clusters, his best songs still have hummable little melodies at their core. The title of a Ranaldo song on the new album, “Karen Koltrane,” neatly encapsulates the apparent contradiction of hybridizing the singing half of the Carpenters (the late Karen, to whom Sonic Youth has addressed songs before) and the ear-challenging, mid-sixties John Coltrane of Meditations and Om.
Like another iconic New York quartet, the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth have upheld a careerlong commitment not to play blues – which takes some determination, given that blues is the basis of 80 percent of rock music. This is part of a larger legacy they’ve inherited from the eighties improv/art-music scene – the general avoidance of all prefabricated musical forms.
Nowhere have the members of Sonic Youth better demonstrated their ability to think outside the limits of traditional structure than on three EPs they released themselves last year. Titled simply SYR 1, 2, and 3, the discs consist of sweeping, orchestral music with no vocals. The EPs came about because the band finally set up their own recording studio – with a full-time engineer – where they could capture any musical notion that crossed their collective mind. The discs feature minimal packaging, simple artwork borrowed from Stockhausen LPs, and liner notes and song titles in various foreign languages – French, Dutch, and Esperanto (the same tongue in which Elvis Costello offered the liner notes to Blood and Chocolate, and possibly the only link between the two acts).
Batteries apparently recharged by the forays back into indie-land, Sonic Youth set about recording their next album for Geffen. A Thousand Leaves, too, owes its experimental sound to the existence of the new studio – the band simply had more time to do what they wanted. Which points to an interesting paradox: They could afford a more leisurely schedule, presumably, because of the commercial success of albums like Goo, Dirty, and Washing Machine. After the first two releases in the SYR series, Sonic Youth played Avery Fisher Hall, where punk kids rushed the stage. The downtown art rebels had become uptown art rebels.
For seventeen years, Sonic Youth’s music has had an immediately identifiable sound. But though their influence has been incalculable – for better or worse, they were largely responsible for alternative rock as we know it – and though any zhlub with a guitar and an aptitude for dissonance could write a passable pastiche of a Sonic Youth song, examples of direct rip-offs have been remarkably rare. This is probably because nobody else could credibly pull off the stance that goes with the music: ironic but engaged, revolutionary but established. Three of the four members of Sonic Youth now have children, one of whom (Ranaldo’s 13-year-old son, Cody) is old enough to play guitar in his own band. The remarkable thing is that the more the group matures, the more they sound like themselves.
Next week, Sonic Youth return to the clubs, marking the release of A Thousand Leaves with three nights at Irving Plaza. They’ll have different opening acts each night, including a legend of the experimental jazz Moore loves: drummer Milford Graves. His free-form swing is as harmonically “out” as a lot of the Sonic Youth stuff is, and it’s a safe bet their audience will receive it about as warmly as Neil Young’s fans received them seven years ago. Such is the dilemma of the institutional revolutionaries.