Sonic Youth’s most indelible cultural imprint is their seamless marriage of the avant-garde to the neo-traditional. Dirty, the band’s requisite one-off Butch Vig alliance, and the ensuing brief rise to alt-rock fortune may have temporarily cheapened their style, but it also ensured newly broadened musical horizons for many a young, suburban MTVite. Twenty years later, after most of their peers have either violently burned out or quietly faded away, Sonic Youth soldier on, still carrying the same weight, the same crossover appeal. There’s a reason rockers, indie kids, and noise nerds alike continue to guzzle the band’s output with such gusto; it’s encapsulated by each invariably stunning live recording of “Eric’s Trip” or “The Diamond Sea.”
As arguably the group’s principal songwriter, Thurston Moore has done tours of duty on pop music’s fringes and in its trenches — sometimes both at once. Demolished Thoughts, Moore’s new solo LP, is a surprisingly restrained yet mesmerizing exercise in string-drenched dream-folk, the apex of what he’s been hinting at for years and a brazen declaration of self. Moore’s official solo history is limited; 1995’s Psychic Hearts housed a handful of great, noisy tunes, but it’s one of those CDs I seem to always find in the used bin, while the more recent Trees Outside the Academy was bathed in twilight, acoustic-bronzed and wistful. The Beck-produced Thoughts, which features violinist Samara Lubelski and harpist Mary Lattimore in key roles, continues in the hushed vein of Trees but, thanks to Moore’s most focused songwriting in years, is markedly more profound.
Opening track “Benediction” recalls Harvest Moon-era Neil Young, and in some ways, it’s an apt comparison: both records are meditative acoustic works from songwriters with a known penchant for sprawling, feedback-laced guitar blockbusters. Another link can be made to Moore’s comrade J Mascis, who’s renowned for his piercing guitar squall and whose recent solo record is similarly muted. Likewise, it’s fitting that Beck produced the album, which at points evokes his Sea Change in its nakedness. But this kind of parallel evaluation mostly serves to distract. Demolished Thoughts is distinctly Moore, if a new, more direct side of him. Notably, while his lyricism remains amorphous, his language has softened; it’s clear that most of these are love jams, however tightly knotted. “I know better than to let you go,” he nearly whispers on “Benediction,” feeling like a scribbled reminder to himself. The achingly gorgeous “Illuminine” finds a more confident Moore rejoicing in “Your clear, cool love/Your clear, cool light.”
Still, Moore remains largely — and intriguingly — inaccessible. “Mina Loy,” a cloudy elegy for the modernist writer, finds the songwriter switching from first to third person: “I don’t care what it takes/ All he wants is you to love him/ Without shame.” On “Blood Never Lies,” “he” is destroyed by love: “You know you stole his heart away/ And he falls into the freezing sun.” It’s a rounded, romantic sort of construct, diametrically opposed to the muddled vagary of Sonic Youth’s thorniest abstractions. Only in rare instances does Moore fall lyrically flat, like on “Space,” a clumsy and patent ditty where he sings halfheartedly about traversing galaxies and such. Even so, the song’s serene intensity and the richness of its production deliver it from lite-psych purgatory.
It’s not important whether Moore’s movement towards a calm conceptual center is a result of shifting into middle age or shifting musical associations; he remains as ineradicably genuine as ever. Don’t mistake “calm” for “dispassionate” — in fact, as Moore’s sound has mellowed, his focus has sharpened. In its own subtle way, Demolished Thoughts is a triumphant statement, one of power through peace, of love through fear. It’s another idiosyncratic, paradoxical creation from a guy who continues to mentor and encourage aggressive young noiseniks while making the most unabashedly pretty music of his career; a guy who, through the course of several decades, has grown from scrappy punk provocateur to sagacious rock ‘n’ roll legend before our very eyes.