Sharps & Flats

After scrambling the music of the 20th century, Sonic Youth eulogize beatnik glory and the betrayed promise of punk.

By Howard Hampton
July 20, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)
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By a serendipitous -- well, let's say absurd -- coincidence, Sonic Youth's "Goodbye 20th Century" came out almost exactly 36 years after the 1963 release of Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift to You." But where Spector once turned holiday chestnuts into three-minute paeans to desire and excess, Sonic Youth rang out a century of American pop not with a wall-of-noise bang but an abrasive, Grinch-like whisper. Over the course of nearly two hours, the group lent their sandpaper guitar tunings, erotic feedback massages and pensive silences to works by such obscurantist inspirations as John Cage and likeminded composer Christian Wolff. All it lacked on the aleatoric, anti-popular front was a cover of Cornelius Cardew's apocryphal 1968 single "Yankee, Please Go Home."

Released on Sonic Youth's own SYR label, there was an enjoyably perverse logic behind the album's metal machine Muzak, and the residue of those experiments is scattered like a cloud of rust across the band's current "nyc ghosts & flowers." The unruly, bad-dream aftertaste of this material echoes the quartet's early records from the 1980s as well, laboratories where they developed their own majestically warped language -- the most unorthodox rock sonorities since the delirious days of Captain Beefheart's crackpot landmark "Trout Mask Replica."


Sonic Youth staked their claim to greatness by probing the pop subconscious -- the secret life of kool things, dirty go-go boots and teenage riots -- but these "nyc ghosts" sound pretty run-down, haunted out. Adrift in nostalgia for more dangerous, interesting times than ours, Thurston Moore, Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon take their dutiful turns reciting bitter eulogies to faded beatnik glory ("Small Flowers Crack Concrete," the title mini-epic) and punk's betrayed promise ("Nevermind [What Was It Anyway?]"). They might as well be unemployed actors sent to funerals by Rent-a-Pallbearer. Right on cue, they pop up to deliver invocations to the vast hosts of the dead (make that guest hosts: Burroughs, Ginsberg, Cobain), dispensing the now-customary wisdom of their Dr. Seussy nursery rhymes ("What did you expect/Another mystic wreck"; "Boys go to Jupiter/Get more stupider/Girls go to Mars/Become rock stars") along with the sounds of an ever-narrowing and more self-referential insularity.

And yet ... Even while there isn't a single song here that holds together from beginning to end, even as the music makes only itself felt in halting jigsaw fashion (the rave-down finish of "Free City Rhymes," the quizzically lyrical passages bracketing "Nevermind" like mismatched bookends), the album has a gloomy, unaccommodating tenacity that's hard to shake. Something about "nyc ghosts & flowers" refuses to go quietly into the cutout bin it seems destined for. Keep listening and the album's ambivalence and uncertainty begin to sound necessary, like the bad conscience of a gilded age. This music says desire and excess have been co-opted, bought out, invaded by the body-politic snatchers. And while that may not be the whole truth, as anyone who has watched Sleater-Kinney turn into a veritable synthesis of the Ronettes and Sonic Youth onstage can attest, it generates just enough spectral uneasiness to steal one's peace of mind.

Howard Hampton

Howard Hampton is a freelance writer living in Apple Valley, Calif.

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