Thurston Moore - Psychic Hearts
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
What year did punk break into the mainstream? It certainly wasn’t 1991. Forget what the critics, historians, and Sonic Youth might have told you. The P-word was rarely mentioned or sold by MTV or in the pages of Rolling Stone when Nirvana was deemed the Band that Matters. In the aboveground, punk—at least, Hollywood’s mohawked, switchblade-armed and leather jacketed variety—was still among many of the bad jokes that defined 80’s pop culture. 1994 was truly the year that punk broke. Green Day and the Offspring hailed from explicitly Punk scenes. Dookie introduced it to millions of kids too young to remember the Buzzcocks, Operation Ivy, Husker Du, and the Stiff Little Fingers, and, for better or worse, encouraged many mallternative fans into shedding their skins and actually finding “real” punk, the type that passed through Berkeley’s 924 Gilman club. The last time I saw Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo on TV was for VH1’s Cliff Notes punk documentary, in which he blurted in a two-second clip, “Green Day is not punk!”
Unlike Nirvana, Sonic Youth’s noise cannot be heard at all in Green Day and the Offspring. The NYC noise-punk vets were supposed to be the Band that Mattered in 80’s American underground rock, according to many music and critics’ circles. What happened? Well, bands that take several steps back from pop to critique it often don’t translate well to homecoming dances, car stereos, and fast-food joints. Green Day and Offspring never shared Sonic Youth’s values of lyric-less critique, and tens of millions of listeners never questioned those bands’ punk credibility because of it. In 1994, the band released Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star, a record that seemed a refutation of their “sell-out” record, Dirty. Sonic Youth alienated many fans during the mid-90’s, and yet the band belonged to the same braintrust of indie rockers, crate-digging anthropologists, photographers, 70’s retrophiliacs, cosmo b-boys, cult obcurists, skaters, and indie filmmakers as best documented by the Beastie Boys’ late Grand Royal magazine, and later heavily mined by Hollywood and MTV. The mid-90’s also saw the group headlining the financially disastrous, but most “alternative” Lollapalooza festival, making a cameo appearance in The Simpsons’ parody of that same fest, MTV VJs Kennedy and Tabitha Soren modeling Kim Gordon’s X-Girl fashion line, Thurston Moore appearing as goofball host on friend Sofia Coppola’s short-lived Comedy Central show, Hi Octane, and Moore joining pal Liv Tyler on a Manhattan shopping trip that eventually aired on Entertainment Tonight.
And then came “The Diamond Sea.” The 20-minute finale of Sonic Youth’s ’95 album, Washing Machine that embodied the band’s torn impulses: the need to play straight-up pop to pay the bills and keep Geffen happy and the artistic need to shred any limits left in rock ‘n’ roll through pure musical chaos. Sonic Youth has stayed at the same crossroads between commercial pop and art since. But let’s rewind several months before Washing was released; consider Moore’s debut, Geffen-released solo album, Psychic Hearts. The record is simply him with Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley on the trapkit and guitarist Tim Foljahn. A decade after its release, it’s now our man’s most profound statement made in the 1990’s. Since then, he veered into letting his guitar speak more for himself in his countless skree-jam projects on the avant festival circuit.
On the record cover is Rita Ackermann’s mysterious watercolor painting of young girls in the forms of an alien, a machine gun-armed militant, several nude sirens, a slightly bandaged pregnant girl with a missing sock, and a girl with an IV cord attaching her arm to her computer. Likewise, Moore dedicates many of his songs to women, whether it be rock iconoclasts Yoko Ono and Patti Smith, the magazine girls, the boy chasers, the glamour girls, or the misfits. On the title track, he vows bloody revenge for one lost soul abused at home and school over Shelley’s rumbling beats and an acoustic guitar riff gentle enough to strum for dollars in a subway station. “And I don’t even know you that well / What the hell, summer spell,” he realizes after ranting after the father, (“I’ll kill the bastard if I could), and the bullies (“I’ll kill all the boys with the fucked-up noise”). Elsewhere, his idol worship sees the women as alter egos, with a 60’s garage-rocker whine, he sings, “Cindy, hey I want to be you, not today, but sometime real soon,” while on the opener, “Queen Bee and Her Pals,” he heckles, “Mister muscle man you got to stop and think / That there was a time when God was dressed in pink.”
Rolling Stone’s Mark Kemp misinterpreted Psychic as an anti-rock declaration. Instead, it’s an embrace of rock’s capability of transcending the limits of one’s personal experiences and repainting them with spectacle. “Rock and Roll, it’s a shame / That you did all you did for blame” he fires on “Cindy (Rotten Tanx).” And yet, his 20-minute instrumental album closer, “Elegy For All the Dead Rock Stars” moves from cloud-melting sunlight to purgatory feedback to a life-fading resolve, is clearly a love letter to rock. However, just like most of his lyrics for Sonic Youth, he still peppers so many phrases that could be considered insider, trash-culture hipster jargon or irony-chic, postmodern, Warholized bullshit. For instance, the frequent mentions of the color purple could very well reference his pal, Spike Jonze’s aborted film adaptation of Harold and the Purple Crayon, the symbolic color of lesbianism, or a random thought scribbled on a napkin.
As for the album’s sound, it hasn’t aged a bit. If anything, this is the poppiest and highest-fi sound that a Sonic Youth member has ever produced. Moore and Foljahn stick to catchy, earworm three-chord riffs, while Shelley’s bombastic, garage-sweat rhythms are strikingly contrary to his usual wallflower work for the Youth. His signature extraterrestrial guitar noises are kept to a minimum, and are mainly used like DJ samples of UFO noises to enhance a few grooves. The trio also rocks quite hard: “Tranquilizers” is fine thrash-blues, while the psych-trance of “Ono Soul” and “Hang Out” staggers to break several pieces of furniture. Moore’s voice is often lathered in reverb, giving his voice a cosmic glint that falls from the night sky (best heard on “Feathers” and “Patti Smith Math Scratch.”). Despite such pop confections, though, there are still some qualities that critique the pop format: riffs are often played redundantly at oddly long stretches, and rhythms and melodies sometimes plod with no resolve.
Two songs that haunted my adolescent self some 10 years ago were “Female Cop” and “Cherry’s Blues.” Heard years later, they are still the richest, most beautiful songs that Moore ever wrote. “Female Cop” is striking for how studio engineer Ranaldo smeared the washes of guitar tones, cymbals and beats to resemble faded Polaroids regaining their colors, while Moore seemingly recalls a lover’s criminal incident handled by his other friend, a police officer. ““Cherry’s Blues”’s lyrics are about nothing as far as I understand, but the harmony in Moore’s hypnotic voice still travels to the stars. The song impacts me in a way that I cannot use the English language to describe.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2005-10-04