Review of Sonic Youth's album The Eternal released through Matador.
If any other band who'd been around for the best part of the past three decades announced the release of their latest album, many - diehard fans excepted - would just shrug their shoulders in a unifying, contemptuous way of saying 'So what?' That Sonic Youth aren't just any other band probably speaks volumes for the fanfares that have greeted every subsequent release since their self-titled debut first hit the shelves in 1982, and also explains why 'The Eternal', album number sixteen, finds itself greeted in the same way.
Their much publicised split from Geffen Records three years ago certainly raised a few eyebrows, not least because of the way Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo spoke out about the differing opinions both band and label had over the future direction of Sonic Youth, not to mention a seemingly innocuous relationship over the way previous releases had been handled that was so obviously beyond repair. The noises coming from camp Sonic Youth were anything but those you'd expect to hear from an outfit who could have no complaints being tagged as 'veterans', yet the whole artistic integrity spiel was something more akin to what would be expected from a politically charged, over enthusiastic bunch of young upstarts just embarking on their first label signing. If that didn't tell you that the hunger was still there, then a brief dalliance with Sonic Youth's post-millennium output surely would, 2002's 'Murray Street' and their most recent collection from 2006, 'Rather Ripped', in particular delaying any murmurs of a midlife crisis for this decade at least.
In fact, the critical assertions laid on 'Rather Ripped' presented Sonic Youth with a dilemma not experienced since arguably their halcyon period of the late 1980s/early 1990s - how would they be able to follow that? But then of course this is Sonic Youth we're talking about, and in true fashion, their ability to astound and amaze has never faltered. 'The Eternal' would also herald a couple of notable firsts for the band; their debut release for Matador Records and also ex-Pavement bass player Mark Ibold's premier introduction to the studio workings of Sonic Youth. Otherwise, this is pretty much business as usual, from Moore's eerie, spectre-like cool to Kim Gordon's purring whispers that usually conceal a hidden amplified scream of the FX pedal.
Across its twelve tracks, 'The Eternal' contains many reference points to their back catalogue, but then for a band with such an assortment of riches in the vaults, comparisons are inevitable. Opener 'Sacred Trickster' is like a shorter, more concise take on 'The Sprawl', while 'Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)' brings to light numerous key moments from the seminal, underrated 'Goo', 'Disappearer' being its most obvious sonic compatriot.
Throughout, there's a relentless urgency that suggests this record's three-year construction was time well spent, the guild of perfectionists proving decisively correct on the gradual slow-burner that is 'No Way' or the conceptual duelling midpoints of 'Calming The Snake' and 'Poison Arrow'. On the latter, Gordon's haunting request of 'Come on down to the river' sounding both beguiling and menacing, while the closing nine-minute monologue of 'Massage The History' sees the guitar-wielding chanteuse at her finest, imploring 'come on with me to the other side' like some bewitching ice maiden; you really know you shouldn't follow but it would be wrong not to, right? Right.
Musically as terse and dynamic as parts of the much lauded 'Evol' and 'Daydream Nation', 'The Eternal' is another welcome addition to Sonic Youth's unimpeachable back catalogue, and that in time, will quite rightly be singled out as one of their best. Who's to say they won't be releasing records of this quality into the next decade? Not me that's for sure.