Sonic Youth The Eternal

[Matador; 2009]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: Sonic Youth
Others: David Geffen

Orthodoxy has it that Sonic Youth breeds reinvention. Glancing coyly back at the catalog since 1981, cognoscenti carve out four main strata: duck-and-cover no-wave slop through Bad Moon Rising; the unfuckwithable trinity of EVOL-Sister-Daydream Nation; the para-grunge Geffen years; and, beginning with the elegiac Murray Street, something of a return to form, if now notably, terminally subdued. The party line on The Eternal has been clear since at least 2007, supported by an unsustainable chain of ergos: they’re with Matador now, thus liberated, thus inspired, thus on the far side of an epistemological break with the last 17 years.

No.

It’s a sheltered soul that lets this chicanery unproblematically unfold (or, indeed, that perforce equates Matador with liberation, inspiration, or subversion). All signifiers to the contrary — they’ve even restored the Reagan-era hyphen ’tween “Sonic” and “Youth” — The Eternal sits comfortably with the last three, an amalgamation of expansive, slightly jilted rock music built on odd tunings, institutionalized imperfection, and kid-tested dissonance. The tropes are familiar, the structures airtight, the gambits utterly safe.

Certainly, the Youth — Kim Gordon turned 56 in April — have done much to incorporate dissonance into the eventually conservative formal idioms of punk rock. These importations, however, are so foregone at this stage as to be meaningless. They’re also highly circumscribed: late SY’s sprawling pop tracks fade in and then out of abstraction, noise sections supplanting what elsewhere might become a solo, bridge, or breakdown. Here, they’re effective but unconfrontational: “Anti-Orgasm” is the welcome exception, smuggling in the delicate aharmonics and then never bothering to reconstitute itself qua song.

The specter of formlessness, then, of each member’s vanguardist alter ego, looms, conveniently sequestered and strategically tapped. Closer “Massage the History” covers the most terrain, perhaps — riffs erupt in Some Nice Moments, Gordon is breathy as ever — but it’s nothing new. “Malibu Gas Station” dispenses the same canned deconstruction, a direct route back to square one — do not pass go, do not collect $200. Consistency rules the day, and consistency is counter-revolutionary.

They branch out some, in intermittently questionable ways. The Eternal is lyrically barren, neither acerbic nor abstract — nor, lest we fret, liberatory. Explicit Darby Crash shoutouts (“Thunderclap”) come too late, Beat provocations (“Leaky Lifeboat”) retain only historical interest, and the assorted art-school imagisms are eminently dismissible. Read our lips, they counsel: We Were There.

Only “Poison Arrow” puts it all together, a chunky, counterintuitively catchy strain of cool-wave whose spritzing chorus emerges unashamed. Maybe “No Way” channels The Wipers with some economy, but “Thunderclap,” its ill-considered predecessor, borders on kiddiecore, a jumble of whoas, vocal breaks, and overly tidy leads that cry out for defilement.

Maybe history will absolve them. Maybe this is the start of another chapter. Except there’s no demonstrable reason to think so: the reference points are givens, the sentiments irrelevant, and the deviations carefully kept in check by the crypto-templates that, SYR series excepted, have structured even their noisiest, freest 21st-century work. The Eternal is accessible, listenable, and all the rest: another consistent album from the consistent rock band Sonic Youth.

1. Sacred Trickster
2. Anti-Orgasm
3. Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)
4. Antenna
5. What We Know
6. Calming the Snake
7. Poison Arrow
8. Malibu Gas Station
9. Thunderclap (For Bobby Pyn)
10. No Way
11. Walkin Blue
12. Massage the History

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