Sharps & Flats

On "Goodbye 20th Century," Sonic Youth refuse to draw a line between pretension and fun.

Published December 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

"You go to my head," Kim Gordon drawls on "Edges" in her unmistakable vocal caress, sounding at the same time like a doped-up whore and an angel of mercy. The track is the first song on Sonic Youth's "Goodbye 20th Century," the fourth release in the band's self-released "SYR" experimental music series.

"Edges" establishes the tone for the new double-disc package, with undulating tones and crashing, layered crescendos set over Gordon's voice. Gordon, for her part, works through a retelling of the Goldilocks tale: "What are you doing in my bed?/And I just got up and I just, I just bolted." The song, like "Goodbye 20th Century," manages to be at once an intellectual and playful treatment of minimalism and chance. It's also indulgent and sprawling, with a sense of hushed beauty.

Fans of the edgy pop noise of "Goo" (to say nothing of the Lollapalooza-leading mainstream flirtation of "Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star") will be confounded by the 106-minute "Goodbye 20th Century," which features music from composers such as John Cage, Steve Reich and James Tenney. But those willing to lose themselves in slow, loving washes of almost delicate sonic minimalism will be rewarded with music that approaches the almost mystical satisfaction of a perfectly pulsating drone.

Sonic Youth obviously do not fear pretension. "Goodbye 20th Century" continues the pointedly avant-garde theme that has dominated this series, from the crimson moire
pattern on the album's cover to the cheekily haughty title of the series, "Musical Perspectives." But don't dismiss this as simple wankery by a once-edgy band that now has its own studio and label and can release albums on a whim. There are real frontiers being traveled here, not the least of which is an exploration of how much a rock band can do away with rhythm and melody and still be thought of as a rock band.

A who's who of current next-wave musicians help out on the record. The rotating lineup includes guitarist and producer Jim O'Rourke, percussionist William Winant, Japanese Fluxus pioneer Takehisa Kosugi, "record player" Christian Marclay, pianist Christian Wolff and percussionist Wharton Tiers.

These are serious musicians, but equally satisfying is the indomitable sense of humor that plays across the record. The jokes, are, of course, a little bit on the heady side. A quote by composer Lou Harrison -- "Everything comes to an end ... even the twentieth century" -- adorns the back of the album. In addition to Reich and Cage, two of the best-known American composers of this century, Sonic Youth includes "Piece Enfantine" by Nicolas Slominsky -- a failed Russian-American child prodigy best known for a creating "Moebius Strip-Tease," a perpetual vocal work that is notated on a Moebius strip that revolves around the singer's head.

Gordon's and Thurston Moore's young daughter, Coco Hayley Gordon Moore, gets a track all her own: Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano," a 12-second number on which Gordon Moore screams three times. The piece sets numbers like Reich's "Pendulum Music," which is marked by the breathing of a whistle set on top of carefully modulated guitar feedback, into relief. This music is not just pretensious, the band seems to be saying, it's fun.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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