When I was in high school, I thought all my favorite bands were from the same
city. I wasn't sure where it was; I just knew all the cool bands Sonic Youth, The Pixies, The Replacements were hanging out in the same cool city, doing the same cool things. To me, that place was unattainable; the only way I could experience it was through my favorite albums. While The Replacements took me to rowdy places and The Pixies to twisted ones, Sonic Youth took me to places unspeakably cool.
It wasn't that Sonic Youth were the best of the bunch; it's just that, for me, they defined cool. They weren't terribly advanced, but they knew how to make music (or noise) that made you feel cool just by listening. They were tall, mysterious, gawky, awkward, uncomfortable, confident, self-assured and righteous you could idolize them and relate to them all at once. They told stories you had to think about and wrote lines you were proud to scribble inside your locker door. Kim Gordon's voice was bitter and sexy, sounding as if she'd been wronged and was working up to spitting in your face (and often she did). The guitar work by Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo took you on an adventure, moving in unpredictable directions, carrying for unpredictable lengths, building unpredictable suspense and then short-circuiting into a mess of feedback that curled around your spine, sent shivers through your anatomy and, yes, made you feel very, very cool.
Sonic Youth and I didn't hang out much as I got older. I went to college and
they went to some new-wave jet-set experimental-trash school. But we kept in
touch. Feeling cool became less important to me and stagnation scared the shit
of them. I understood they had to try new things but I wasn't into it it
had all become a little too cool for me. But even as they drifted into territories
too bizarre for me, and as my love for them waned, I still had Confusion Is
Sex, Goo, Dirty and Daydream Nation that I could retreat to when I
longed for cool nostalgia. But never again would my teenage self who dreamt
of cool places where cool musicians did cool things live vicariously through
Sonic Youth records, imagining herself in a convertible, on the road, a cigarette
hanging from her lips in a whirlwind of heat and flash. Not even return-to-form
albums like 2002's Murray Street or the new Rather Ripped can take
me back to that unspeakably cool place. The mysteries of cool bands and the places
I invented for them are gone I guess that's what happens as you get older
and have to start making a living.
Still, outside the cloak of cool mystery, Rather Ripped sounds cooler than most anything else I hear being released today. Chalk that up to nostalgia and past association with good times. But I still say, regardless of where you're coming from, it's hard to hear Sonic Youth without thinking: Cool, or, er, Kool. After more than two decades of making music (or noise), Sonic Youth have come to encompass coolness, in all its gritty and avant never-mind-the-mainstream glory. And while they have experimented with a few different musical approaches, they've always had a sound that's theirs alone they sound like no one and no one sounds like them. And no one sounds quite so cool.
Rather Ripped is what you'd expect from a Sonic Youth that's getting back to the cool rock 'n' roll sound they trademarked years ago, completed by a tagline of frenzied feedback and chiming guitars. And they're hardly afraid to capitalize on their past why should they be? And how could they be? Sonic Youth have a very difficult time sounding like anything other than Sonic Youth (at least when they've no itch to wander amongst ghosts and flowers). The vocals, Moore's hollow howls and Gordon's smoky coos, are too distinctive. The guitars, sacred and alive, are too irreplaceable. And the loose, traveling structures, fed by crunch and fuzz, are, well, too Sonic Youth.
So it's impossible not to hear bits of Sonic Youth's back catalog (the rock-oriented
segment anyway) hanging about Rather Ripped. The new cut "Incinerate" climbs
and rushes and tumbles over itself just like Daydream Nation's "Teen Age
Riot." Listen to the joyfully melodic "Reena" and you'll think: "Sugar Kane" (Dirty).
Check the ethos and angry down tempos behind "What a Waste" and you'll feel "The
Sprawl" (Daydream Nation). Dig the squall of feedback opening "Sleepin
Around" and the rumble of beats that follow, and you'll think: "Kool Thing" (Goo).
But, alongside all the similarities and nostalgia is change. No matter how many riffs or beats evoke another, Sonic Youth no longer consists of the young individuals who founded the band more than 20 years ago. Like most of their fans, they've grown up; their age is felt through their songs. While this is not entirely a bad thing, Sonic Youth will never be the young artsy punk kids making the young artsy punk noise they did so many years ago. Vocal cords aged, chaos became (almost) rehearsed, and lines like "Let's invest in dull creation/ Thrill city/ Cheap legacy" from "What a Waste" don't sound quite as urgent or convincing coming from someone closer to 40 than 20.
I'll never adore Rather Ripped like I adored Goo. I'll never hear Sonic Youth today like I did in high school. I can no longer fantasize about the cool things they're doing in cool places. Those are bygone days. But every time I hear Gordon say something bitchy and effortless, every time the guitars screech nonsensically, and every time the amp spits out odd tunings and dissonant noise Ripped or Dirty I will always and forever think: Cool.