Among other things: the best Sonic Youth album; the best noise rock album; the best indie rock album; the best album of its decade; a line in the sand.
Sort of startling, I think, to begin with such broad proclamations, but no matter: the music speaks for itself, and it always has. Those glistening first chords of “Teen Age Riot,” despite their roughness and toughness, sparkle like stars set against a blank black sky. The careening, scritch-scratch riff and pounding drum stomp of “Silver Rocket,” implying sex in title, lyrical content, sound, even the band’s name. That indelible twangy little note at the beginning of “Kissability,” and that same guitar tone used to horrifying effect for the guitar solo in the monstrous bridge, maybe the best one they ever wrote (can a guitar sound like it’s being sexually assaulted?). The way “Eric’s Trip” sounds like a hazy drug-fueled freakout in the corner of some random party a bunch of your friends are at. The highly underrated piano/overheating amp (!) duet “Providence” which gives the listener ample time to prepare for the back leg of the album (oh, and Mike Watt’s message is hilarious – how could it not be?). The gentle breeze intro of “Candle” that sounds a bit like a cosmic light show viewed from the roof of your house. The blast of a snare amidst the jungle-like (?) ambiance that powers up kickass Jimi Hendrix tribute “Hey Joni.” The shockingly calm coda of “Across The Breeze,” – possibly the inspiration for a similar coda in Radiohead’s excellent “Optimistic” – which is one of my favorite sections of their entire discography. “Rain King’s” sheer noise, the feeling of being pummeled by the pouring rain while you’re running from the cops, especially that part at 1:07 – a moment of “oh shit, what have I done?” The glorious, glorious trifecta of “Trilogy,” all the way from the curious-sounding opening of “The Wonder” to the crunching death march of “Eliminator Jr.” And it’s in the words, too, the best they’d ever write (well, OK, maybe A Thousand Leaves could compete, but onwards…): songs of the disenfranchised and restless, spat out determinedly by some of the finest vocalists of their time, sexy and bleak and frightening, all at once. “It’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head / Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now,” “I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell / Does this sound simple? Fuck you! Are you for sale? Does ‘Fuck you’ sound simple enough?” “It’s safe to say, candle / Tonight’s the day, candle,” “I’m just walkin’ around / Your city is a wonder town,” “All comin’ from human imagination – Day dreaming days in a daydream nation,” and my favorite: “She’s not thinking about the future / She’s not spinning her wheels / She doesn’t think at all about the past / She thinking long and hard / About that high wild sound / And wondering will it last?”
Like I said, line in the sand. No band, before or after, managed to capture the American indie scene as it was, and even as it is now, as perfectly as Sonic Youth did in 1988. It’s a tough task summing up even a year in music, and to do so for an entire decade, to encompass the works of R.E.M., the Minutemen, Husker Du, the Replacements, X, Joy Division, the Pixies, Glenn Branca, and the Meat Puppets, all while forging your own original sound? On a double album? Well, I think that’s pretty special. The feeling of everlasting freedom, rattled by the rush, driving down a highway at dusk with a bunch of friends in a shitty van with good music, a little scared, excited for the future. A city lit up by a million humans, restless, in boxes: a need to escape. Daydream is the way out. The first time I heard “Teen Age Riot” was on a pair of shitty earbuds in my best friend’s car, far away from home. I didn’t listen to the whole album that night – too daunting for a 16-year-old me. But what I’d heard had hooked me like nothing else. That resplendent first minute or so, fusing gentle noise and a muted guitar, all while Kim Gordon murmurs gentle mantras over it, are just untouchable. And the way that shock of guitar, like an electric burst of energy, just tears itself into being like a star exploding in front of your eyes… Three years later and I haven’t heard an album as simultaneously beautiful and noisy, as engaging, as cathartic, as shrouded in mysticism and nighttime splendor as this one. A high point for
American independent rock music by the greatest rock band in the universe. “Kick it!”