While critical consensus held that the long-running New York art-punks' last album "Rather Ripped" (2006) was its most tuneful in ages--"Sonic Youth are the best band in the universe," rock-crit dean Robert Christgau gushed--I just didn't hear the consistency, concision and vitality that marks the group's best efforts: "Bad Moon Rising" (1985), "Sister" and "Evol" (1986), "Daydream Nation" (1988) and "Goo" (1990). And, after the long string of relative duds that it's been giving us since 1994, I though it unlikely that Sonic Youth would ever regain those peaks again.
Well whaddya know? Seemingly reinvigorated by their departure from the major-label ranks (yes, the band that brought Nirvana to Geffen has, a decade and a half after the end of the alternative-rock movement, finally moved to Matador) and another "fifth Youth" lineup change (Jim O'Rourke left two albums ago, and he's been replaced by Mark Ibold of Pavement on bass as Kim Gordon moves to guitar), the band has given us a 16th studio album that stands as its freshest, most spirited and just plain best in 17 years. "This album is a celebration of newfound freedom," Thurston Moore has said. "Releasing this album with our friends at Matador feels like liberation, which inspired us during the recording process."
Never mind that Sonic Youth always has posited itself as the least-compromising band in rock; "a celebration of newfound freedom" is exactly what these 12 tracks sound like, from the opening joy-in-noise manifesto of "Sacred Trickster" ("Press up against the amp/Turn up the treble, don't forget!/Getting dizzy, sitting around/Sacred trickster in a lo-tech sound!") through the closing epic of the tellingly entitled "Massage the History."
As those two bookends indicate, Sonic Youth isn't breaking new ground here: We've heard variations on every sound it's exploring, from the postmodern Hawkwind space-rock to the fractured "Goo"/"Dirty" pop tunes to the aforementioned guitar trance-out epic. And the lyrics are predictably dismissible, whether they're imitating/paying tribute to second-tier Beat poetry (having hailed Allen Ginsberg in the past, this time they champion Gregory Corso) or just making us scratch our heads in bewildered stupefaction ("Penetration destroys the body/Violation of a cosmic body/Do you understand the problem?/Anti-war is anti-orgasm").
But 30 years into a career that has, at alternating moments, been both dramatically under- and ridiculously overrated, Sonic Youth has delivered a masterful disc to remind us why we cared.