Somnambule - Writing About Music

Sonic Youth ~ Sonic Nurse

What are Sonic Youth all about? They’ve stuck doggedly to their path since their 1983 debut, but what path is that exactly? To be fair, when they tried to radically focus their template by playing noise/improv (with little intrusion from songform) to audiences in the UK a few years back, they received an actively negative response. In their sleeve photo the group still look like white dude kids, but they're strangely older as if the camera which took the picture had temporally malfunctioned. Whatever their age or the extent of their grey hair, although you can’t see their shoes in the photograph, it seems certain that they must be wearing Converse trainers. The paintings which adorn the new album cover depict busty blonde/brunette nurses wearing tight-fitting uniforms in various poses. They stand isolated against distressed backgrounds, their mouths covered by surgical masks and they wear looks that are deliberately ambiguous in a suggestive/homicidal sort of way. This may just be prime Sonic Youth imagery – both cornily traditional and with the potential to be go off beam. All these oddly unbalanced elements find further analogue in the inappropriate paraphernalia of major label promotional tactics stuck to the cd's jewel case. For example, one sticker declares the cd to be a Universal Special Edition (I've no idea in what way) and another informs lucky owners that “the new album includes exclusive bonus track and secret website link”... Follow the links and you get to watch the video to Peace Attack and an examination of the process behind the writing of ‘Paper Cup Exit’. Neither of which are exactly earth-shattering.

The album itself kicks off with Pattern Recognition which sounds at times like it might have been recorded by an early 80s new wave band. Kim Gordon does the honours on vocals and delivers a characteristically self-conscious and fairly crazed performance. Halfway in there’s an instrumental passage which might have wandered in from The Cure circa A Forest, all careful paranoia. A couple of minutes later and there’s a nice bit of crowd-diving guitar which builds to a very enjoyably noisy conclusion.

Sonic Nurse doesn’t appear to be a radical departure from its predecessors. A recognisable attitude is evinced which wouldn’t be out of place if it was inserted into a James Dean movie. To paraphrase: things have gone bad, things have gotten desperate – there’s a thrill to the way events are unfolding around me, and I’m going to ride that thrill for all its worth. Rhythm and solo guitar motifs heighten this excitement at the same time as they temper the rush, a case of alternately holding back and pushing forwards. Sonic Nurse is brimful of fine riffs and melodies, no worries in that regard and the sharing of vocal duties varies things attractively.

If there’s any frustration though, it’s that their guitar-based music has often seemed a rather unadventurous way of going about things when viewed against all the other electronic music which has blossomed in the group’s lifetime. They’ve never seemed all that interested in hybridising their music with other forms such as hiphop, dance, electronica, etc. And Jim O’Rourke’s relatively recent membership hasn’t radically affected the group’s sound, at least to these ears. But the wheel inevitably turns and now Sonic Youth have become the elder statesmen of several countercultural scenes. It would be surprising if this album converted any souls left unmoved by previous outings, but it’s likely to keep fans happy and with the new wave (sic) of guitar bands Sonic Youth might just extend their fanbase. If that sounds a tad negative, this album does feel substantial: most tracks clock in at between 5 and 7 minutes, the whole affair is simultaneously trashy and weighty and there’s a cumulative, pleasing and even rather surprising sense of majesty about the whole enterprise.
Colin Buttimer
July 2004
Published by Milkfactory