Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped (Geffen) by Keith Boyd
Sonic Youth have nothing to prove. They operate in a hard-won sphere of existence that doesn't rely on much outside approval in order to both be and provide its' members with a vocation and calling. They’ve been bringing it since 1981 and that’s 25 years, Jack! They’ve been killing it, absolutely killing it for longer than The Beatles were even together. From the fallout of Glenn Branca’s freewheeling guitar noise, on through cyber-punk hypnosis, into the great 20th century experimental composers with frequent forays of funk and rock, Sonic Youth are our champions. We dwellers in, and on the fringes of, the underground have our troubadours in Sonic Youth. Chances are, if you’ve thought it, read it, painted it, strummed it or smoked it, Sonic Youth was there years before, coping a feel and making it their own.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote about finding transcendence and clarity by crawling through Hell. He advocated a systematic derangement of the senses in order to move beyond our everyday, reactive mind and find our true light, our true voice. This voyage of self-discovery is familiar to all of us. We may or may not go the chemical route. Some folks tune in to the mystic. They feel Christ's wounds and taste Heaven through his blood and body. Others hear the shimmering ping of the meditation gong. They fold themselves into prostrations letting the mantra and mind find unity. Any way we wander, the path isn't easy. All great endeavors require sacrifice and when some things are lost, they are lost for good. Artists take this brave journey every time they create from their true inner-core. Check Joseph Campbell's "Hero With A Thousand Faces." He lays it out for real. Another good example is Alex Grey's series of paintings, "Portrait of The Artist". Okay, let's stop the referencing and just talk about it.
We're all born with a multitude of people and possibilities inside of us. We carry the genes of all of those who came before us. Their struggles, joys and quests manifest in our lives just as their hair color and height do. We are truly not just individuals but more composites. The weight and power of our heritage can be a source of great strength and connection. But, life is hard. I mean that's really the message that comes through isn't it? Sure we have wonders. We're able to love! We're able to swim in the ocean and fly and laugh at a good joke and eat a slice of pizza and go to the moon and play with our kids and protest the war and strum a guitar and hear Mozart and all of that is great! It is also, all temporary. The "life is hard" truism makes sure of that. In the kernel of every beginning is the start of the end. That baby struggling to take a wobbling step down the hall of your first apartment will one day exhale his last breath. This fact can be wounding. The artist starts in wonder and light. They express their perspective and find delight in the form of things. Soon however, the same perceptual organs that tuned into this flow of life has to grapple with its' dark twin. The heightened sensitivity that allows one to stare at sunlight through a tree for hours and render it so beautifully on paper as to make you cry will now come to contemplate change, decay and death. It's a wounding. It sends some away from their art to seek solace through ignoring. Others hang on and in the hanging on are dismembered. They shatter into multiple people and find themselves in relationships, depressed, worshiping gurus, hooked on heroin, playing in a rock band, dyeing their hair and hanging from hooks, shooting up their schools, climbing mountains and generally trying to find some way to experience and express their lives or at least react to it. Along this path we meet guides. They show us the full moon and we mistake their pointing for our seeing. We reject some of them but follow along our oath with a bit of their guidance. At some point our dismembered self begins to reform. We leave behind certain things and pick up new things. We come back to where we started and see it for the first time. Sometimes we bring back with us a vision. The wonder we once felt at the form of things has been replaced with a respect for the continuum of things. In finding peace with change, our vision can begin to manifest. At first we viewed death and change as the call of the other. It felt alien and wrong. Now we know it for what it is; our true birth right. Had we not heard that call to growth we wouldn't be artists. None of this is imprinted with finality however. This same process is in fact an unfolding circumstance as we chart our steps through life. When we witness an artist who is aware of this and uses it to guide their work, it is a cause for celebration. Sonic Youth are those kind of artists.
Their new album, "Rather Ripped"(Geffen) gives us an all new Sonic Youth that while shedding new light on their musical journey, retains and refines some of their trademark moves. It's a worthwhile listen from the getgo. I've heard some chatter on the ether that the underground guerillas are chaffed by the fact that there are "songs" on this release. Folks, I'm here to tell you that there's no need to worry! Yes, there are songs here, damn good songs as a matter of fact! Sonic Youth have come out of the other side of Hell and yet again delivered us an amazing field guide. Some night when you're feeling the need to clean out the crevices of your brain and shiver your timbers a bit, drop the needle (or press the button as it may be) on SY's 1985 release, "Bad Moon Rising". The pure strip-mining of your adrenal glands will inform you that you are in the presence of greatness. Like Rimbaud downing another absinthe in Paris and fending off Verlaine's groping hand from his crotch, you'll know you're hearing the sound of a "derangement" of your senses. The voyage of 20 plus years of seeking means that Sonic Youth have earned the right to do some "songs" and we can expect that these songs will blow our minds. This album only exist because the artist have paid the price for it to do so. To simply say that the new Sonic Youth record is no good because it contains the compactness and conciseness of a song structure is to miss the point entirely. This album is so good because there are songs. They trump our expectations for what can be said with sound in the confines of an often played out format. There are the rumbling and twanging sounds of Lee Renaldo and Thurston Moore's guitar figures as they mirror the intoning of the lyrics. It's a beautiful steeple chase of sound that is only more endearing for the fact that it doesn't go on ad-nauseum and but with the "plan". Sonic Youth has taken the format and breathed new life into it. This may in fact be a contract obligation to Geffen by which they earn their freedom, but they're giving us all a bit of freedom in the process.
The album opens with the chiming and satisfying song, "Reena". Kim Gordon actually wails on this one. I hear shadows of Patti Smith and Nico mingling with Gordon's own unique phrasing. This song is a microcosm of the whole album. It's not as though Sonic Youth has abandoned their feral instincts, more they have learned to employ them in a tactical manner so as to maximize the impact. A standout track is the hypnotic and compulsive, "Incinerate". In it we hear Thurston Moore compressing thirty plus years of music into five minutes. From The Ventures to Iggy Pop to The Feelies, it all comes to a head in this song. Another aspect to the ever evolving search of Sonic Youth is revealed on "Turquoise Boy". The great unfolding we hear is tone. Guitar tone is a slippery beast to pin down. It's a subtle combination of guitar, pickup, amp, volume and playing style that combine to create a particular quality of sound. On this song we are rewarded with the fruits of Sonic Youth's inquiries into the nature of tone. In fact the whole album is a showcase for the various answers they've found to the question of what does a guitar sound like. At times harsh, at times mysterious, at times an exultation.
Recently I read a great book about DJ's and DJ culture called, "Last Night A DJ Saved My Life". If you've ever been visited by music that hits your soul and won't leave you alone, you know exactly where this title comes from. The feeling of completion we get from great music is vital and pushes us on our way. We resonate with the themes and sounds of good music. Sonic Youth have turned out a real winner here. We owe them our thanks for staying true to their muse for so many years. 'Rather Ripped" doesn't rest on its' creators laurel. It plunders and distills them into this thoroughly enjoyable listen.