Rating: 4 / Format: CD/LP / Label: Matador
Every other review of Sonic Youth’s last album, Rather Ripped, mentioned the band’s age, as if the New York quartet (now a five-piece with ex-Pavement/Free Kitten bassist Mark Ibold) were on a constant battle against an imminent safeness and subsequent crapness that would naturally arrive with wrinkles and creaky knees. Which is obviously crass: Whitehouse’s William Bennett is at least 45 and makes primeval, intense noise as DJ Cut Hands; Uwe Schmidt still produces mind-boggling experimental techno and must be pushing 300 at this point. And indeed, Sonic Youth’s last SYR album took the form of a patently un-safe collaboration with the equally middle-aged Merzbow and Mats Gustafsson.
As far as the band’s major label studio albums go though, they have got steadily more conventional. Which is fine – in fact, what made Rather Ripped good was the way the ‘Youth took the corp-rock template and used it to create great pop tracks: ‘Incinerate’ had one of the best choruses of any SY song, ever, and ‘Do You Believe in Rapture?’ sounded like the best Flaming Lips song in five years. On ‘What a Waste’ Kim Gordon sung "what a waste/you’re so chaste/I can’t wait/to taste your face", and it didn’t sound stupid. Talk about triumph in the face of adversity.
But that ability to take Starbucks compilation rock and make it shimmer and give you shivers; it doesn’t surface on The Eternal. In fact, the one time the album sounds good is when they abandon all this four-minute rawk song orthodoxy. Album closer ‘Massage the History’ isn’t far removed from Grails’ wind-swept desert rock, with a patient build-up that rises and falls at just the right moments, and Kim finally singing with a bit of decorum. It’s nine and a half minutes long, and it wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s best album, Daydream Nation. It’s a reminder that this band can still be great. But seeing as it follows tracks like ‘Anti-Orgasm’, with its Pavement-lite riffs, vapid lyrics and tired skronk-outs, and ‘Poison Arrow’ with its impotent chorus and half-arsed growled vocals, few will persevere with The Eternal long enough to hear it.
Because let’s face it, if you heard this album and it was just some new band rather than Sonic Youth, you’d turn it off after four tracks.