How are you going to spend your time? I don’t just mean this morning or later on tonight, but, you know, eternity? Are you over there somewhere in the hereafter or back some place in the past? What if this was your very last night on Earth, or something more absolute: if it were Earth’s last night, the eve of the apocalypse? Lee Ranaldo is certainly utilizing his time away from Sonic Youth, with Last Night On Earth being his second album in less than two years. While the underground icons of experimental indie/punk/noise rock continue their hiatus (following the split of wedded Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon), the dude some bloggers quip as being the “George Harrison of” Sonic Youth is reaching some comparably superb All Things Must Past-esque heights with his “solo” recordings, aided notably by his group, The Dust: SY drummer Steve Shelley, guitarist Alan Licht, and bassist Tim Luntzel.
Much of last year’s Between The Times and The Tides found Ranaldo refining his sensibility for bent-toned beauties into some (mostly) straightforward, four-minute janglers. Some sinister-toned ambient roars haunted some of that album’s corners, but most of it was sweetened with some 90s pop hooks, tasteful keys purring from John Medeski, and that strangely charming lilt to Ranaldo’s voice, akin somewhat to a crackling bonfire that never rises, burns out, or extinguishes, warbling along in a sweetened middle spot. With characteristic downplayed quirk, minimalist acoustic ballads like “Hammer Blows” demonstrated that Times/Tides wasn’t going to sound much like Sonic Youth, and yet insta-single riffers like “Off The Wall,” despite likely referencing the fevered pitch of the Occupy Wall Street movement, still sounded nostalgic — almost timeless, as if that song coulda been cut in 88 or 93 or even 03: an uncanny timelessness. That song dealt with “These days/ So uncertain” and refrained on: “The life and death of man/ As old as stone.” And here, we begin to wonder what might be Ranaldo’s obsession with time.
“Last time/ Lost time/ Next time,” sings Ranaldo over Shelley’s percussive punch into the bridge of “Ambulancer,” a furtive storm of guitars, with dual rhythms from a steadily strummed electric over the warmer chirp of an acoustic, while a third, distorted lead starts soaring throughout the former’s cascading statement. It’s a darkly sublime summit of guitars, the acoustic jangling along staidly, while the dual electrics employ a range of dazzling effects and varying atmospheric tones — a searing roar rich with reverb or at other points just a steady drone through the ditches of this otherwise buoyantly-beat indie rock ballad. Shelley’s driving beat keeps things deceptively chipper, while Ranaldo reels some of his most bewitching (and suspenseful) lyrics, sick with uncertainty: “Spiders of time are calling/ Wrapping you up in their webs/ The night is quickly falling.” About two minutes into “Ambulancer,” the guitars sound jumbled, almost tripping over each other, like two outfielders going for the same pop-fly — or perhaps like tripping-in-time. A distinct acoustic guitar’s brief solo melodiously splashes into an electric’s duet, breaking up the groove: it feels like the song is stopping to look back (in time), but we flow onward, like time, and the song’s rhythms lock back in swiftly.
This is as much a diagnosis of me over-analyzing (sorry, I just watched Room 237) as it is a triumph of Ranaldo as a songwriter — a highlight of his aptitude for rich and compelling lyrics that reward any who want to mine through them with the revelation of curious patterns, connections, and relatable sentiments (love, dread, temporal ponderousness, etc.). Examples:
“I kinda knocked you out,” Ranaldo winks in the lyrically perpendicular “Lecce Leaving,” a catchy clatter of indie-scuffed Americana (there’s some pedal-steel sound swinging at the edges of the chorus as that acoustic guitar keeps on a-janglin’). In terms of its instrumentation and groove, this could almost be the longer, fuller, big brother to last year’s “Off The Wall” (albeit with an extended thrum of signature dissonance rocketing through the bridge). Chimes and organs and fitful drums crash upon you like a waterfall, and it achieves that enticing aggressiveness of a, dare we say, Doors-eque freakout jam, minus all ostentation.
“I’m thinking about the first line that I wrote you,” his voice quavers in an almost out-of-character affectation to open “Key-Hole,” where we may draw more singer-songwriter-y comparisons to, again, an Americana (or dark-folk) aesthetic. And this quiet creator (a multifaceted artist ranging composing, producing, writing, and illustration) really opens up to you here, wondering how to define love and, more profoundly, how to define himself.
But we can’t define Ranaldo and neither can Last Night, mostly because this is not a solo record at all. Ranaldo’s the lead writer and lead singer, but Last Night’s enrichment blooms from the space given to Luntzel, Licht, and Shelley to fill — with nine tracks breaking 60 minutes. These songs spread, shift, transform, and soar — never too waywardly in a “jammy” sense, but like a showcase of the splendors of each player’s instrumental range and talent. I can’t define Ranaldo’s lyrical meaning, but I can find patterns: time, just like in all our lives and as it is in Ranaldo’s lyrics, is ubiquitous, universal, unconquerable. All things must pass, etc.
“This is the best time of my life,” Ranaldo sings on “Sandy,” a track exemplifying The Dust’s new tract (i.e., more expansion, immersion, and slightly psychedelic, jazz-tinged post-rock). It’s an enthusiastic lyric, but then the wind blows, the ocean rises, and the central figure of the song, a hurricane (the same one that hit New York and New Jersey one year ago this month), crashes in. “Do we have a chance to take a moment like this in our time, again?” Title track “Last Night On Earth” opens akin to “Hammer Blows” in terms of its minimalistic acoustic strum — but you’re not in for another solo ballad, because the rest of the ensemble soon shuffles in with graceful, riffy-rock vigor. And so, Ranaldo’s got a band, again. “The road that leads you out/ Is the same way you came in.” It’s not Sonic Youth, but Ranaldo, haunted with memory and philosophizing all this time stuff, sounds like he’s indeed having the best time of his life.