Sonic Youth – Murray Street

Sonic Youth
Murray Street

Sonic Youth. The very name evokes a pictorial sense of nostalgia: washing machines on blue shirts, candles, Muppets, blue jeans, slow-motion b/w videos; these genre defining images of the late 80s and early 90s will forever be imbedded in our brains. However, in the status quo, Sonic Youth is no longer the poster group of underground music. Its name has become synonymous with a transient generation that has since graduated college, found a dead-end job, settled for a mediocre spouse, and is battling alcoholism in a 12-step program. But where that generation traded its jeans for slacks and freedom for marriage, the band has continued to prolifically churn out music on a consistent basis, keeping critics and fans on their tippy-toes. Rather than images, Sonic Youth of present lets the music speak for itself.
From the late 90s up until now, most Sonic Youth releases have met with divided criticism; predicting if the album will receive praise or denunciation is near impossible. But despite the alienating potential of each release, the band has retained a devoted following and, more importantly, artistic credibility. With Murray Street – Sonic Youth’s 16th album – the band showcases its ability to funnel the sounds of the past into a fresh perspective. The album is the second release in the supposed trilogy of lower downtown Manhattan. NYC Ghosts & Flowers was the first, an album relegated to the used bins soon after its release. The band derived the title Murray Street from the location of their studio in New York. Around the release of NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Sonic Youth also erected its own record label, SYR, and released a series of avant-garde pieces dubbed SYR Musical Perspectives. Because these esoteric recordings are the band’s most recent releases, the question whether Murray Street is rock or avant-garde arises.
Upon the first few seconds of opener “The Empty Page,” you’ll realize that Sonic Youth has, in some ways, returned to its rock roots: it’s melodic, sophisticated, and extremely elegant. Most tracks are guitar-based, honing the melodic guitar lines and use of counterpoint heard on previous albums, such as Washing Machine (1995) and Daydream Nation (1988). This time around, the guitar usage seems less rambunctious and more focused. But the trademark guitar-induced feedback and catastrophic rhythms are not completely lost; they drag them into the fore on songs like “Karen Revisited.” It’s this brilliant execution of balance that has matured the most in their 20-plus years as a band.
I can only speculate that the biggest influence on Murray Street is imbued by the band’s recently added member: the prolific and omnipresent Jim O’Rourke. This addition isn’t surprising considering O’Rourke’s production and performance on SYR3 and SYR4: Goodbye 20th Century. But while those two releases dabbled in the avant-garde domain, O’Rourke’s newfound interest in the pop medium (see Insignifcance and Eureka) may have directed Sonic Youth toward the road of melodies again, which is, ironically, opposite of what he had done with artists like Wilco, John Fahey, Gastr Del Sol, and previous incarnations of Sonic Youth. Even the seven-song tracklisting seems like a signature stroke of O’Rourke. But these assumptions are as dubious as they are trivial because no matter what influenced the band, they don’t dilute the notion that Murray Street is one of the strongest and most poignant statements the band has issued in recent memory – at least in the rock sense. And subscribing to a seven-song length is very inviting opposed to the sometimes overbearing number of tracks on previous releases – just long enough to become entranced by the music and just short enough to curtail boredom.
Though O’Rourke’s production techniques are crisp and clear, the raw element that has become a necessary force in Sonic Youth’s previous albums is retained. Ranging from missed notes to out-of-tune guitars, the album has a palpable edge replete with a healthy cache of personality and enough bandwidth to cover a wide array of musical territory. Album closer “Sympathy for the Strawberry” is a perfect example of this indifferent musical style while still showcasing a transcendent quality. The song sounds simple and straightforward, but a high degree of complexity is also apparent, melding this dichotomy into a sophisticated and uplifting experience.
Adequately describing the music on Murray Street, without resorting to minute-by-minute analysis, is difficult: it’s not quite pop, and it’s not quite avant-garde. The avant-garde aspect of the album is heavily based on added sounds and song structures, and the pop side is primarily due to the melodic appeal of the singing and guitar riffs. Using inductive knowledge, one could say that it’s a blend between pop and avant-garde, yet it still doesn’t fairly describe the music. Maybe this inability to label the album is because of their constant genre-jumping; maybe it’s because each sound is used tastefully and never hackneyed; or maybe the reason is as simple as this: Sonic Youth has taken existing elements to create what can truly be called a new musical perspective in the rock domain, a feat that is often strived for but rarely ever achieved.