Chris Byrd enjoys the reflective mood of Sonic Youth’s Murray Street
During the first half of the ’90s, Sonic Youth capitalized upon their reputation as one of the preeminent groups born in the wake of the post-punk scene. Signing with Geffen Records’ DGC subsidiary, the band released Goo in 1990. Arty and intelligent but catchy as well, Goo was a pop-inflected invitation from an erstwhile relentlessly highbrow group that relished idiosyncratic guitar tunings and asymmetrical song structures. In a sense, 1995′s Washing Machine brought an end to the arc that had begun with Goo. After that album, Sonic Youth’s tentative rapprochement with mainstream pop was decidedly over.
The second half of the decade witnessed a flurry of activity from Sonic Youth as the band launched its own label, SYR, and began putting out mostly instrumental recordings. Influenced by John Cage and other avant-garde composers, the SYR albums are markedly abstruse, eschewing all of rock’s glitter, conventional — in the loosest sense of the word — song structure and listenability. Sonic Youth’s major-label releases of that period — 1998′s wildly uneven A Thousand Leaves, which borrows heavily from motifs running throughout the SYR recordings, and 2000′s NYC Ghosts & Flowers, which harked back to the dark energies of their early ’80s efforts — testified to the tremendous vitality still coursing through the band.
With their new album, Murray Street, Sonic Youth contends with the burdens of being, well, Sonic Youth. The title refers to the location of the group’s studio, where an engine from one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center landed. Given the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere during which most of the album was recorded, it is no surprise that the majority of the songs on this CD are ruminative, stripped down and fraught with anxiety. (The exception being the loopy “Plastic Sun.”)
There is a strong sense of deja vu on this album, which doesn’t appear to be lost on the band. With the first two tracks titled “The Empty Page” and “Disconnection Notice,” there is a palpable sense of malaise. On the latter, vocalist-guitarist Thurston Moore croons, “Did you get your disconnection notice? / Mine came in the mail today / They seem to think I’m disconnected / Don’t think I know what to read or write or say.” Ironically, it is the music’s lack of startling invention that charges the song, and the rest of the album as well, with poignancy. It is as though the weight of the world — and the weight of being a genre unto itself — has finally caught up with Sonic Youth.
Like an aging master whose work no longer summons forth the shock of the new, Sonic Youth replaces invention with delicate refinement on Murray Street. The result is a cohesive, welcoming album that, while not as puckishly seductive as the group’s early ’90s work or as beguilingly hermetic as the SYR albums, reminds listeners — without prodding them — of Sonic Youth’s consequential role in the history of rock.
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