‘Pleasant surprise’ is an inadequate phrase to describe the moment that decisively marks the drift between movements in some of Sonic Youth’s more experimental songs. I choose to use it, however, as a figure of rhetorical understatement, or litotes as it is technically called. All of us who write about music struggle with the problem of devaluing it by over-referencing the superlative. The problem when writing about music that you love is how to approach it from any other angle but the superlative. You could take the historical significance approach, but we all know that’s not what stamps ‘important’ on something, no matter how hard we try to rewrite music’s significance in hindsight (history belongs to the conquerors etc.). You could give the musical equivalent of the literary ‘close-reading’, by examining all the ways that this music is music. But that would be dry without some effort to convey what listening to this sound is like — the impossible feat of “dancing about architecture” that music writing tends to be.
So we settle for a compromise, most of the time, because there is really no right way to describe something that’s partly cultural, partly linguistic, partly mathematical, and partly emotional. Sonic Youth always struck me as happy in this amphibious realm: land-dwelling rock ‘n’ rollers who had half-crawled into the watery world of experimentation (see, for one thing, the beat-poet referencing NYC Ghosts and Flowers). Over the course of several not-half-bad albums, they staged reasonably impressive musical breakouts the way The Beatles used to pull stunts for photographers, as if they knew that being quite good gave them license to pull funny faces sometimes. Most of the time you got the impression that Sonic Youth were just concentrating on their music fairly hard — something would blossom as a sudden dreamy digression that would strike them, and they would follow that up.
But Sonic Youth’s moderate success lay in the way they crystallized these Jams into songs. They could make you remember the near imperceptible moment when the big boat they were steering started to turn around; they could make a miniscule twist sound like the dramatic bridge in a short pop song, as when Kim Gordon sings “Let me introduce you/ Since you saw my shadow self/ Living underneath you/ She can’t resist a tickle out/ I’m a girl scout,” in “Sympathy for the Strawberry.” This was unlike the free-jazz they referenced in that, as chaotic and drawn out as Sonic Youth songs could be, the changes did not dissolve into the whole, but left you craving the hook, the moment when the harmonics became subtly atonal, and the postmodern jags of Kim Gordon became insinuating and even menacing. There were many moments like these in Sonic Youth’s oeuvre, but “Sympathy for the Strawberry” was one that struck me over and over — without knowing quite why — as being one of the Youth’s most remarkably understated moments of musical innovation.