Over the years, Sonic Youth has been just as adept at not making bad records as it’s been at making good ones. It might seem absurd today, but back in 1986, not everyone had high expectations for certified classic EVOL. After all, the New York–based quartet had just switched drummers for the second time, couldn’t possibly duplicate the dissonant depravity of the previous year’s Bad Moon Rising, and was now signed to SST, a label that was deemed by some (you know very well who you are) to be insufficiently avant and, in any case, obviously way too rawk. A few years later, hipsters had another reason to be worried: an imminent double-album—a decidedly unpunk move that turned out to be the still-amazing Daydream Nation. And surely no one expected to hear the art-rock likes of Goo or Dirty when, at decade’s end, the group took the money and ran into the open arms of David Geffen.
At every stage, though, Sonic Youth demonstrated that it could not only prove the doubters wrong, but that, well, maybe rawk and rawk concepts and rawk-sized budgets had been the band’s thing all along. Think about it: The acidhead lyrics. The flannel shirts. The obsession with Madonna. The kool-thing attitude. The fuckin’ rhythm section, man—especially the rhythm section. Don’t take this the wrong way, but it may well be that the Sonic Lifers’ single greatest idea was to dumb down the terminally art-damaged sound of the No Wave scene that spawned them: Keep the unapologetically difficult hooks and the reflexive weirdness; replace the mutant-disco beat with one that might have appeared on someone else’s bad-moon record. It’s a formula that seems to never fail.
Indeed, troubling SY developments of a more recent vintage—the making of a “post-9/11” record, say, or the addition of noodle-happy producer/noise-maker Jim O’Rourke to the fold—have also proved to be false alarms. So it’s utterly predictable that Sonic Youth’s new LP, Sonic Nurse, is being touted in lots of corners as the group’s latest return to form. Certainly, there’s no denying the Daydream Nation–like gestalt of album-opener “Pattern Recognition.” The aptly titled track is Sonic Youth as we used to know it: semi-organized chaos propelled by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s tunefully dissonant guitars and Steve Shelley’s pistol-whipped drums.
Even better, the whole thing is presided over by Kim Gordon in total “Halloween”/“Shadow of a Doubt”/“Beauty Lies in the Eye” mode. Gordon, who has kept a relatively low profile on the last few Sonic Youth albums, has never once tried to actually sing any of her, um, compositions, and on this one, she mostly seethes and breathes heavily, vacillating between seduction and contempt with words that acknowledge the track’s backward-looking gaze. “Can you sell me/Yesterday’s girl,” she chants. “’Cause everyday/I feel more like her.” Like all great Sonic Youth numbers, the tune is surprisingly psychedelic and kinda sad, an epic just waiting for some young-gun auteur to use it over the closing credits of a remade Easy Rider. Exit music, indeed.
The rest of Sonic Nurse, however, is sad in a much more prosaic way: The disc is, alas, mostly a dud. “Dripping Dream” opens with the kind of electrified squall and hiss that longtime fans will find comforting, but it quickly morphs into a lazy jam that, in lieu of an actual hook, offers a recurring riff that I swear sounds lifted straight from Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right.” Elsewhere, the jangling “I Love You Golden Blue” squanders its found-sound opening and Gordon’s raspy whisper on an aimless groove that nods in the direction of classic rock but then just nods off. “Stones,” likewise, is a long-winded mid-tempo drag, a dainty-by-SY-standards chord progression that seems strangely impervious to Shelley’s valiant efforts to goose it in the direction of something memorable. And whither Moore, the closest thing Sonic Youth has ever had to a lyrical sharpshooter? On this one, he sings as if he’s making it up as he goes along: “Lights on/The stones, on backed-up drain…” “The dead are all right with me,” he offers on the wobbly chorus, apropos of who-the-hell-knows-what.
Actually, that line might make sense if Moore is referring to the Dead as in Grateful—which he may well be. The band’s last record, Murray Street, contained more than its fair share of jammy Phish bait, and Sonic Nurse also has a loose, live-in-the-studio feel to it, a pickin’-and-grinnin’ quality that’s particularly ill-suited to a group that has repeatedly demonstrated how far you can take punk’s formal constraints. This time out, Sonic Youth is content to amble from one shambling say-nothing ditty to another. Chiming set-closer “Peace Attack” is a case in point, a protest song so meandering that it’s likely to make even those who share its anti-W. lyrical stance think twice. “Dude Ranch Nurse” is similarly listless, a lumbering, wah-bedecked wheel-spinner that features a fits-and-starts melody and lyrics that seem to underscore the band’s current career predicament. “Let nurse give you a shot,” Gordon intones halfheartedly. “It’s something to do.” Well, yes.
To be fair, any just–a–little– too–late–or–No New York band that’s still kicking into a third decade is bound to have a tough stylistic time of it, and that’s of course doubly true of an act with a legacy like Sonic Youth’s. And to be fairer still, there are a number of arresting moments on Sonic Nurse. “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” for example, very nearly lives up to its title with a heady mixture of propulsive rhythm and pop-culture potshots. “New Hampshire” pays unlikely lyrical homage to B.B. King and Johnny Winter over music that conjures the unholy ghost of Joy Division, and “Unmade Bed,” which clocks in at 3 minutes 53, provides a pop-savvy (and much-needed) change of pace on an album full of six- and seven-minute snoozathons.
All of which is, let’s face it, not much comfort. Throughout its career, Sonic Youth has regularly surmounted hipster suspicion by issuing records that tweaked your brainpan even as they toyed with your pleasure center. Sonic Nurse ain’t one of ’em—though it is rawk: Competent but dull, the disc relies on the good will of an aging demographic and suggests that the rest of the world has finally caught up with a group that, from its name on down, had always seemed devilishly out of step with its time. On Sonic Nurse, Sonic Youth sounds all grown up in the worst way possible.CP