No band in the history of rock has come up with as many consecutive winners as Sonic Youth. Sure, there have been better bands, but the ones that come to mind were either short lived (The Velvet Underground) or suffered a drop in quality (The Rolling Stones). Sonic Youth, however, have released thirteen incredible albums in a row, over the course of twenty-three years. (They also don’t seem to have aged at all… is it possible that they are involved in the occult?) They began their career as an indistinctive no-wave band but, with the release of Evol, they managed to find the perfect mix of melody and noise. Their last album, The Eternal, was among the best releases of 2009, proving that it is possible for a group to seem fresh that late in their career. Certainly they would keep going, right?
Well, last year was marked by two sad events for anybody who loves alternative rock: R.E.M. broke up, and SY’s husband-wife duo Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon separated. The band has expressed doubt over whether they’ll ever record another album again. With R.E.M, it’s a bit easier to take. R.E.M. hasn’t released a really memorable album since New Adventures in Hi-Fi, and it’s very possible that Michael Stipe could put out a better solo album than Collapse into Now. With Sonic Youth, though, it just seems sad. Is it possible that the group that dominated the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and the ‘00s might not record again?
Even sadder is the fact that, judging by what the band members have released, they’re nowhere near as good solo as they are together. Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, released last year, was an acoustic album that, despite being pretty, didn’t have many great songs attached to it. Kim Gordon (my favorite woman in music, ever) has another band called Free Kitten, a group that is like Wings to Sonic Youth’s Beatles. Meanwhile, Lee Ranaldo has often gone the experimental route, with spoken word and free-jazz influenced noise albums. His latest album, Between the Times & the Tides, is less experimental, however. In fact, very little of the noise that Sonic Youth is known for shows here. It’s really quite bland.
But, it’s more than bland. I didn’t care for Demolished Thoughts (a lot of people liked it), but I listened to it before Thurston and Kim split. While listening to Demolished Thoughts, I wasn’t thinking about it as the only option. It was just a solo album and, if it wasn’t really my taste, I could always wait for Sonic Youth’s next album. Here, any Sonic Youth fan concerned about the group’s future will listen wondering, what if this is all we have? And, in that case, Between the Times & the Tides is depressing as hell. It’s not awful; it’s not even bad, really. But, if this is what we have left, then it’s just not enough. The band needs each other.
But, breakups are tough, and it’s easy to see why ex-spouses would be wary about being in a band together. So, if Sonic Youth never records together again, this is what we’ve got. Between the Times & the Tides is a soft album (like Demolished Thoughts) that is more about sound than songs. In fact, the songs rarely lift off, typically staying in one area. When I played The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s first album for a friend, he said that, although he liked indie music, it rarely climaxed and tended to stay at a nice but sterile level. I disagree with that perception when applied to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart but, when applied here, I can see it. This album is nice, but that’s all it is.
It does harbor one excellent song, though: “Lost,” which does everything correctly, while staying true to the album’s concept. It even has a chorus! So, I’d say that Sonic Youth fans should definitely listen to the album, if only for that one track. Who knows? You may even like the whole thing. Other critics seem to.