"We’re playing at the House of Blues [in Las Vegas], and I think this is really the only weak-selling show on the tour,” says Kim Gordon. “I’m curious about who’s going to come see us. I was trying to explain to Coco” — Gordon’s daughter with bandmate Thurston Moore — “what Vegas was about, and I had to say, ‘Well, it’s all fake.’ It’s all supposed to be about freedom and pleasure, but the city is incredibly conservative, and it’s really this programmed, managed idea of fun, theme parks and weekends, and so on. But she was OK with it, she got it.”
Talk of Vegas leads us to Linda Ronstadt’s recent eviction from the Aladdin Casino and Resort, after dedicating “Desperado” to Michael Moore and urging her audience to see Fahrenheit 9/11. “Maybe they’ll run us out,” Gordon muses, sounding not a little devious.
But it’s not only political conservatives who’ve recently loved to kick Sonic Youth. Scan the reviews of Sonic Nurse — which, counting mini-LPs, one-off sound tracks, and assorted miscellanea, is something like the 30th or 40th unique release for the venerable group — and one begins to suspect how difficult it must be to maintain concentration above the din of a thousand fusty-crotched old punks, carping about how your band’s been losing its edge since 1990 or thereabouts.
By now it’s no secret that there’s a contingent of reactionary fussbudgets who’d rather Sonic Youth continually remake Daydream Nation (name-checking that album is generally the hallmark of this type of boring griper) than develop its chops in other directions. It’s an old problem, of course, and one that requires serious artistic choices, with consequences: When Arthur Conan Doyle tired of writing about Sherlock Holmes and killed him off by throwing him over the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Solution, fans of the series, including Doyle’s own mother, pitched such a bitch that he resurrected the character quite against his will.
But Sonic Youth has lasted more than twice as long as the Beatles, and it’s safe — as well as gratifying — to observe that no amount of pissing and moaning seems to have ever pushed the band in directions other than the ones it wanted to explore at the moment. Poetry, fashion merchandising, visual art, and independent film have all, at various times, passed within the group’s scope of individual and collective projects.
“It’s not as varied as it might seem,” says Gordon, “but it can be scattering. It’s difficult to have multiple careers. And Thurston and I haven’t lived in New York for five years. We have to go in on weekends. But I think this record may be our most focused. You end up having only a certain amount of time that you can zero in on decisions. We had to mix this one in ten days, during Coco’s Easter holiday. So we had a deadline, and we had to make decisions and stick with them.”
Still, the band members’ extracurricular projects continue to expand. Consider, for example, Protest Records, the pro-arts, anti-war “virtual label” founded last year by Thurston Moore and graphic designer Chris Habib. Through the label’s Web site (www.protest-records.com) visitors can access free music from musicians ranging from the prominent (Beastie Boys and Chumbawumba) to the relatively obscure (check the ferocious “The Pledge to Resist,” a collaboration by poet Saul Williams and DJ Spooky that hits like a modern-day “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”). It’s less a Sonic Youth-affiliated project than Moore’s baby, but the lending of several SY tracks (and collaborative recordings) to Protest’s online playlist blurs the distinction between art and politics.
Bringing us back to Sonic Nurse, about which the aforementioned fussbudgets are predictably griping, but which seems to have touched an unexpected nerve with the 16-to-20 crowd — a somewhat surprising demographic, given the band’s revered status in the minds of that generation’s older siblings.
In a shrewd appreciation recently posted on upstart Web zine dot-alt.com, a pseudonymous reviewer noted Sonic Youth’s unquestioned historical relevance while maintaining firmly and without irony that “Sonic Youth are not an ‘important’ band, they’re a Great band.” Contrast this with a recent review in Magnet magazine, which characterizes Sonic Nurse’s lyrical focus on American politics and culture, specifically the album-closing “Peace Attack,” as evidence of the band having its “fingers [on] the pulse of nothing” — a dismissive, oddly shrill dig that seems to suggest more about the writer than the music. (What, songs about American foreign policy are passé now that we’ve won the war?)
Sonic Nurse initially sounds less ambitious than 2002’s Murray Street, which for the first time successfully married the band’s more structured arrangements to its lifelong penchant for extended freeplay and avant-noise. But repeated spins reveal the reason for the new album’s more tentative sound: Its thematic focus is tighter, its subject matter more immediate, and its lyrics (by Sonic Youth’s standards, at any rate) comparably more forthright.
The broad subject of Sonic Nurse is new-millennium America; Lee Ranaldo’s “Paper Cup Exit” scans the aftermath of the 2000 election: “Memory dis-ease / Across United States … / Line-up map was ripped and torn / Jilted frame with all hope gone”). The cheekily titled “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” (originally called “Mariah Carey and the” etc.) pegs the cult of celebrity, and the business of celebrity worship, in gritty but compassionate detail: “They say if you press too hard on it / It’ll squish into a dense ball / It will lose its fluffiness / That’s what you get when you use a boxed mix.”
“I think a lot of people, on a first listen, think that’s an anti-Mariah Carey song,” says Gordon. “It’s really more pro-Mariah Carey. It isn’t even so much about one person, it’s more about the corporate manipulation of image, and ourselves as consumers, buying into the fascination with celebrity. Nobody has to tell female performers that if they use their bodies sexually, they’ll sell more records. Even the more overtly political stuff, it’s not just fist-throwing in the air. On a certain level, yeah, you’re speaking to the converted, but a song like ‘Peace Attack’ tries to talk about those issues in a way that puts them in a different light.”
By way of framing those lyrics, SY’s experimental side has largely been tempered, though not dispensed with, on Sonic Nurse. As a result “Peace Attack” sounds less aggressive than Dirty’s similarly themed “Youth Against Fascism,” but its low-decibel arrangement allows Moore’s fractured, mantra-like meditation on war and resistance to become strangely hypnotic: “Reminder of the great / Of the great anti-hate / All eyes to the crimeboss.”
It fits, after all, since what has Sonic Youth’s overarching project been, if not pointing out the intersections between pre-packaged music and pre-packaged experience? On this score, at least, there’s some measure of hope for the young generation.
“When we took Coco to the New York, New York Hotel, she got up close to the Statue of Liberty. She’s seen the real one, and she knows it’s made of copper, and it’s green. And when she saw the one at the hotel, she said, ‘Ah, see? It’s white.’
“She wants to go see Paris tomorrow,” Gordon laughs.