Returning from the wilderness, then, with a new-found hunger.
The events of July 1999 marked a definite Year Zero for New York’s masters of art-punk skronk. Stolen from their tour van, all of their instruments; the expertly detuned guitars, the skewed equipment that enabled them to pioneer their much-copied noise. Wherever their muse took them from here, there was no doubt they’d be starting the journey from scratch.
Which perhaps explains why ‘NYC Ghosts & Flowers’ burns with such a sense of direction and focus. While it captures the contrary, questing essence of [a]Sonic Youth[/a] surer than any SY release since ‘Washing Machine’, it also never betrays the sluggish, arrogant lack of self-editing that made ’98’s ‘A Thousand Leaves’ so bilious and unlovable, and the band’s self-released ‘SYR’ EPs so hit and miss. [a]Sonic Youth[/a] have drawn a line under their seminal catalogue and made a virtue out of necessity; it’s given them the impetus to prove they’re still a vital creative force, not just hangovers coasting on their reputation.
This 42-minute opus is refreshingly free of flab or over-cerebral theorising. Opener ‘Free City Rhymes’ courses from tight-picked guitar shards, through gorgeous, eddying pastoral strum, to an explosion of noise (orchestrated via producer Jim O’Rourke‘s powerbook) with such confidence, such natural grace, it feels as tightly constructed as a state-of-the-art R&B anthem. This isn’t experimental music; rather, it’s the [I]result[/I] of the experiment – where the Youth‘s more frustrating recent music felt like failed clinical trials. The song ends in a feedback white-out because it [I]should[/I], and not, as you might previously have surmised, because Thurston Moore couldn’t think of anything better to do.
This same sense of purpose runs through the album: ‘Renegade Princess’ brilliantly morphing from art-rock fracture to primal beat-stomp; ‘Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)’‘s Television-esque guitar interplay; Thurston howling “Fucked up in Cleveland!” at the close of the excellent ‘Small Flowers Crack Concrete’ (imagine ‘Hits Of Sunshine’ if it had a point). And if Kim Gordon‘s sketchier contributions don’t exactly set mouths a-watering for ‘SYR#6’ (‘the all-Kim issue!’), then the towering slow-build of Lee Ranaldo‘s title track demonstrates a rejuvenated sense of the music’s inherent drama and narrative structure, and a rejection of previous records’ lapses into wanky abstraction.
Returning from the wilderness, then, with a new-found hunger. Here’s hoping they’re not easily sated.