onic Youth’s career has by-and-large been characterized less by innovation than by consistency. It’s a dependable schedule; a new Sonic Youth album every two or three years, with a new agendum and nuances, but the same dynamics that they’ve had from the start. Aside from the considerable jump from artier, forward-thinking fare like Sister and Daydream Nation to the ballast of 1992's Dirty, every subsequent album for the band hasn’t been as much a step forward so much as a step sideways. Experimental Jet-Set, and No Star’s song fragmentation naturally echoed the melodic motifs expanded upon on Washing Machine, just as NYC Ghosts & Flowers premeditated the arrival of Jim O’Rourke’s producer/full-time band member status on their last release, Murray Street.
But whereas Murray Street was a record of spacious, lengthy guitar hymns, Sonic Nurse is something more ambitious. Produced by Richard Lloyd, the record has a distinctly dissimilar mood from Murray Street, despite being composed out of essentially the same parts. The lyrics are delivered with a listless malaise, the instruments played in odd tuning and with finesse. The songs on the record are long, but well-considered; and for the first time since the nervy pop songs of Washing Machine, one gets the sense that Sonic Youth are truly the quotidian "elder statesman" of their craft.
The immediate impressions the record makes are ones that imply the hellish and the feminine. Bassist/singer Kim Gordon has long been considered possessed of both traits and, for the first time, the record seems built around her songs. As such, rather than being a chore to listen to, her songs sound brighter, more emboldened. "Pattern Recognition," the record’s first song, is propulsive and ferocious—six minutes of trademark Sonic Youth guitar terrorism led by Gordon’s unsettling coo. Likewise, the absurd lyrical pastiche of "Mariah Carrey and the Arthur Doyle Handcream" is actually saved by Kim’s vocals. "Hey, hey little baby breakdown," she sings, and like the Courtney Love (Britney Spears?) assault "Plastic Sun" (Off of Murray Street), Kim’s delivery makes it seem both a lament and a taunt.
The rest of the songs are divisible between guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. As predicated by Murray Street, Moore’s songs are serpentine, with his plain-spoken delivery dropping Burroughs-isms on top of the mix. "The Dripping Dream" and "Peace Attack" are each composed of Moore–mid-tempo riffing, mildly political/poetic turns-of-phrase, and ferocious instrumental crescendos. And so it becomes evident that despite the consistently fine song-writing the band has to offer, it isn’t the songs themselves that keep their fans coming back. Rather, Sonic Youth is a band at perfect synergy with itself. Every tangential instrumental passage seems not premeditated, but psychically transposed. In fact, between the eleven-minute "I Love You Golden Blue," and the seven-minute "Stones," the band flirts with jam-band status—albeit, a jam-band with pronounced experimental tendencies and a keen melodic sensibility.
It seems disingenuous to criticize Sonic Youth simply because their most innovative days are behind them. Granted, their current line-up has a tendency to overplay their most annoying traits (Especially the faux-beatnik lyrics, though I’ve never considered Sonic Youth lyrics anything more than melodic placeholders anyway). In any case, it shouldn’t be any surprise to any Sonic Youth fan, of any era, that just when one prepares to delineate them as a group that has long outlived its function, they return with a record nearly as strong as their best. The fact is, every member of the band is as important and contributory as any other, and Sonic Nurse, if not proof of a band bursting with fresh ideas, is at least fresh-sounding. Considering the current aridity of the musical climate, this is something to be thankful for.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-06-10