Middle-Age Riot: On The Eternal, Sonic Youth takes young folks to school.
Middle-Age Riot: On The Eternal, Sonic Youth takes young folks to school.

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The Eternal marks both Sonic Youth’s freedom from the golden shackles of major label Geffen and a supersweet 16 of sorts. No, Coco Gordon Moore’s debutante fête isn’t until next year—The Eternal is Sonic Youth’s 16th studio album. To put that milestone into perspective, the Ramones released only 14 studio albums over three decades.

The members of Sonic Youth have all aged as gracefully as their music. The Eternal finds them once again teamed withGerard Cosloy, now the head of Matador. Sonic Youth last worked with Cosloy 23 years ago when his old label, Homestead, released its “Flower/Halloween” 12-inch. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the bandmates seem so very comfortable in their own skin on The Eternal.

On Rather Ripped, its final album for Geffen, Sonic Youth seemed to be trying too hard to force its dissonant experiments into palatable pop song formats. There’s more room to breathe on The Eternal, as evidenced by the album’s last song, the sprawling “Massage the History.” Kim Gordon whispers so seductively that you’ll forgive absurdly Lizard King–like lyrics such as “Come along with me to the other side/Not everyone makes it out alive.” The song’s near-10-minute length allows guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, along with noob (and ex-Pavement member) Mark Ibold, plenty of space to strum and shimmer.

On “Anti-Orgasm,” the lyrics sound like something cribbed from a Riot Grrrl–era term paper (“Penetration destroys the body/Violation of the cosmic body”), but after several minutes of silly gender politics, the band trails off in a beautiful, hypnotic outro that recalls the best work of Massachusetts experimental rockers Cul de Sac.

If there is a downside to Sonic Youth’s tenured status, it’s that The Eternal occasionally comes off as stiffly didactic. The band has always thrilled in making either subtle or overt references to other artists throughout its entire career, but you didn’t need to be well-versed in the oeuvre of Philip K. Dick to appreciate Sister.

However, on The Eternal, the number of allusions can be overwhelming. A work from Takoma Park, Md., guitarist John Fahey serves as cover art, even though the artist is known more for fingerpicking than finger-painting. Sonic Youth was instrumental in helping to revive the ill-starred guitarist’s flagging career, and the inclusion of his painting is a thoughtful nod. Furthermore, Fahey’s piece, a frantic circle of red and white, is a perfect manifestation of The Eternal’s theme, the cycle of creation and destruction and the role that Sonic Youth and other artists play in the ongoing continuum.

According to Thurston Moore’s press materials, album opener “Sacred Trickster” is a salute to painter Yves Klein and the “Western Massachusetts noise artist Noise Nomads.” “Anti-Orgasm” is a tribute to late-’60s fashion model turned commune-dweller Uschi Obermaier. Two songs actually feature references right in the title: “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” and “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn.” The former is a shoutout to the scrappiest of the Beat poets, and the latter a tip to Los Angeles punk martyr Darby Crash. “Poison Arrow” is, according to Moore, dedicated to mystic cabana boy and prog pioneer Kevin Ayers, but the song itself sounds more like a tribute to Velvet Underground by way of Felt and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Moore’s use of “Here she comes” and “There she goes,” both obvious Lou Reed tropes, only strengthens the comparison. Although Moore and Gordon are the face of the group, Ranaldo has always seemed to be its heart. His songs feature a perfect blend of popcraft, experimental instrumentation, and warm vulnerability.Ranaldo, luckily, gets two contributions on The Eternal.

On “What We Know,” Ranaldo quotes Joni Mitchell when he snarls, “I’d drink a case of you.” Whereas Mitchell meant it more as a Canadian lovebird line for Neil Young, Ranaldo’s use is more threatening. The tuneful and noisy guitars, however, are the stars of the song. Ranaldo’s best moment is “Walkin Blue,” a spry and sunny number. The chord progressions bite a bit from Blur’s “There’s No Other Way,” but it’s Ranaldo’s words that give the song emotional weight: “Everything you see is clear/Everything we feel/I’m here to let you know/All we need to do is just to just let go/You’ve heard we’re born to lose/But don’t startin’ think that’s really true.” If Ranaldo, who was blocks away when the towers fell on 9/11, can turn a frown upside down, who are we to deny him?

Moore’s best contribution, “No Way,” is, not surprisingly, his most straightforward and rocking. It has such great energy and simple momentum that it doesn’t seem rock-snobbish at all that Moore intended this as “a nod to The Wipers of Portland, Oregon.” It’s clear from The Eternal that Sonic Youth is like that cool college professor who battles against indifference and tries, often in vain, to bond with the students. If Sonic Youth sometimes seems overly preachy or teachy, it’s only because its members have a passion for the stuff. Otherwise, how would they have made it all these years?