Sonic Youth – Dirty (Deluxe Edition)

Sonic Youth
Dirty (Deluxe Edition)

With the floodgates opened by the luxuriant double-CD reissue of Pavement’s seminal Slanted & Enchanted at the end of last year, it was perhaps inevitable that another institution of America’s recent rock past would concede to a conciliatory (and celebratory) rapprochement with its back catalogue. Welcome back then to Sonic Youth’s Dirty (originally released in 1992), the first of three ‘deluxe’ 2-CD reissues from the band’s dense body of work (enhanced editions of 1990’s Goo and 1988’s Daydream Nation will complete the trilogy later in the year). A controversial first choice for re-release – but perhaps a cleverly calculated one – the relaunch of Dirty paves the way to an informed reappraisal of an album that still causes cat (and dog) fights amongst Sonic Youth fans over 10 years down the timeline.

If signing to a major label for the release of Goo and touring stadiums in support of Neil Young at the turn of the 90s had been enough to incite disgust amongst die-hard Youth fans, then the release of Dirty was tantamount to heresy. At the core of the disquiet was the decision to enlist the production services of Butch Vig – the man credited with turning both Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins from awkward underground noiseniks into radio friendly unit-shifters. Sonic Youth were immediately dowsed with accusations of jumping on the MTV-endorsed grunge-rock bandwagon. Harsh criticism for a band that had led the vanguard – alongside the likes of The Pixies, Hüsker Dü, and R.E.M. – against the plastic musical facades of the 1980s. On the surface, Sonic Youth have appeared unperturbed by the denouncement of Dirty; after all, the album’s substantial commercial success has given the foursome unrivalled creative freedom on a cut-throat major label ever since. However, the diligence deployed in this lavish repackage operation does suggest that Sonic Youth feel Dirty deserves a better critical placement in their discography.

Listening back now, confirms the feeling that Dirty has been misfiled, misplaced, and just plain misunderstood. Sure, power-chord crunching alterno anthems like “100%,” “Wish Fulfilment,” “Sugar Kane,” and “Purr” held some sway with mainstream rock fans back at the time of release, but such moments hardly feel like faded Nirvana facsimiles when respun today. In fact, such slices of melodically-charged post-punk fit satisfyingly into the same lineage as earlier Youth pop slanted nuggets – see “Starpower” (from 1986’s Evol) and “Dirty Boots” (from Goo) if you need any convincing. Furthermore, Butch Vig’s production was far from being a sanitised corporate makeover. In fact, Vig’s raw and dynamic aesthetic pushed Sonic Youth into bolder more panoramic directions, cleverly avoiding the fuzz, echo, and reverb that makes some late-80’s/early-90’s American alt-rock records sound cruelly dated now. Dirty‘s studio-sealed freshness allows Kim Gordon’s agit-politicking on “Swimsuit Issue” and “Orange Rolls, Angel Spit” to burn as bright now as it did in 1992. Elsewhere, Thurston Moore’s gorgeous soundscape piece – “Theresa’s Sound World” – certainly continues to show the benefit of Vig’s wide-screen approach.

Where Dirty failed, Sonic Youth had only themselves to blame. “On the Strip” is horribly meandering, the 59 second hardcore of “Nic Fit” (a cover of The Untouchables) is a joke not worth repeating, and the sloppy sensationalist sloganeering of “Youth Fascism Against” only has Ian ‘Fugazi’ McKaye’s guest guitar wrecking to recommend it. But such flaws aside, Dirty still dwarfs many of the substandard and inconsistent albums Sonic Youth have inflicted on the public in more recent years. It seems that the tuneful (albeit less experimental) Sonic Youth of Dirty, still sounds a whole lot more meaningful than the self-important Sonic Youth that gave us 2000’s abysmal NYC Ghosts & Flowers.

This positive re-evaluation of Dirty-era Sonic Youth is undoubtedly helped by the quality and quantity of contemporary flipsides and rarities appended here. The glorious “Genetic” is one of Lee Ranaldo’s strongest and most insistent contributions to the Sonic Youth song-pool. Gordon’s empowered status on the album-proper is mirrored on the wonderfully frenzied “Hendrix Necro” and her sassy lead vocal on a smart-as-hell semi-acoustic cover of The New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” The post-psychedelic sprawl of “Tamra” and its even more elongated sibling, “The End of the End of the Ugly,” are disturbingly good cross-distillations of The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. The inclusion of 11 lo-fi rehearsal recordings, many of them being instrumental sketches of Dirty album tracks, is perhaps a little self-indulgent (some relevant live or radio session material might have brought in better value for money), but they do provide an intriguing insight into the workings of Sonic Youth’s collective-minded song construction process.

As salvage operations go, Dirty Deluxe is a remarkable victory for rehabilitation over reputation. The best Sonic Youth release in five years? Sad, but quite happily true. Get down to your local record emporium now and get yourself doubly Dirty, for nostalgia’s sake if nothing else.