I have a confession to make: I have never been a Sonic Youth fan. I bought Dirty
on cassette back in the day because I liked "100%", and was disappointed with the rest of the album. This was after I'd seen it posted at the top of numerous "Best Of" lists, which made me wonder, was the world flawed, or did I just not get it? Over the years I've had limited exposure to the band, avoiding all articles hailing them as the greatest indie rock band to ever live and comparing Thurston Moore to Lou Reed, equally talented and undervalued. My lasting impression of them throughout the late '90s was an image of Macaulay Culkin making out with some girl during one of their overlong videos. Needless to say, I felt incredibly ill-equipped to review Murray Street
, for fear that either I still wouldn't get it, or I'd have to admit it was horrible, thereby dashing all hopes of indie credibility I ever had. But to the surprise of no one more than me, I liked Murray Street
I would say loved, but love is a strong word, and this album has flaws. It still falls prey to the band's overlong tendencies, the dissonant outro drone that lasts longer than the songs themselves, the maudlin and overrated vocals of Kim Gordon. But any trepidation I felt at reviewing this disc was assuaged during the opening notes of "The Empty Page". This is not your older brother's Sonic Youth. Whereas the band once seemed to dawdle and wander aimlessly through beds of noise, this new tight formation sees hooks, standard song structures and recognizable melodies. Even as a non-Sonic Youthie I wondered if the band had sold out, but after repeated listenings I concluded that they had merely settled down. Instead of meandering soundscapes, Murray Street offers compact morsels (in structure if not length) that find the band still noodling in between chords, layering more depth in the undercurrent of traditionally arranged pieces than most bands can muster over the course of an album.
"The Empty Page" is a strong opener, but the album takes off on "Disconnection Notice", closer to the band's rambling style but wrapped inside a cocoon of a melody, ingenious and deceptively simple, reminding me of a fuzzier version of early Verve. Moore sounds like a boozy Ray Davies here, more interested in what he's doing than he used to be. "Rain On Tin" carries on the new melodic torch, prompting me to use an adjective I never thought I'd use in a Sonic Youth review: "gorgeous". Sure, "Karen Revisited" tops out at just under twelve minutes, more in step with the SY of old, but even in the endless feedback they find new islands of tranquility. "Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style" is catchy if a bit obtuse, although some nostalgic part of me was secretly glad to hear the old school guitar squealings back again. Kim even turns in a decent showing on "Plastic Sun", although the band missed a chance to be sly here. A song in which the virtues of "plastic girls" are torn down would sound less catty coming from Kim and more subversively honest coming from Thurston -- despite the fact that most guys despise falsity on the female front, very few of them will ever raise hackles about it. But I can't blame SY for handing this one to Kim -- girls telling girls off is always going to seem at least somewhat interesting.
The album is not perfect. The band is not perfect. At this stage of the game, they can be forgiven for submitting to their own indulgences, boldly stabbing into new territory before retreating to the relative safety of plaudits past. The epic feedback at the end of "Karen Revisited" may have been edgy and relevant once. but it now seems gratuitous; the track played on for a few minutes before I noticed I was still listening to the same song. But overall, the luscious melodies woven by Sonic Youth on Murray Street are immediate, gorgeous things, impermanent yet muscular, more than worthy of being heard. I may not be able to embrace Sonic Youth head-on as a band just yet, much less as idols of '90s rock, but this album has done more than just change my heretofore negative opinion of the band: it's got me interested in tracking down their back catalogue, so I can listen with fresh ears to songs most people already consider to be modern classics. Artists are expected and encouraged to change over time, but that same growth pattern is underdiscussed in listeners. Maybe I've reached the point where, when it comes to Sonic Youth, I finally get it.