erasing clouds

Sonic Youth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers (Geffen)

by Dave Heaton

Over the last five years or so, Sonic Youth has been up to a lot, making some of the weirdest and most interesting music of their career thus far. Between their albums on Geffen (I think Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves are as good as anything they've done) and their SYR releases (a series of increasingly more experimental EPs, the most recent being the two-disc Goodbye 20th Century, a recording of modern classical and avant-garde music by groundbreaking composers of the past and present), they've released a variety of complex music which stands in contrast with just about anything else being made today. They've created their own world, this nether space between traditional rock and more experimental music which incorporates both.

Those two sides are blurring more and more; NYC Ghosts & Flowers is a major-label rock album that feels thoroughly experimental, quite a feat these days. In one sense it's the most low-key album they've made ever; there's little punk-rock screaming or jagged noise bursts. But it isn't mellow in any sense, just subtle. With the help of Jim O' Rourke as producer and extra musician (he's since joined the band for their summer tour), they've made an album layered with all sorts of weird and interesting sounds. There's spooky atmosphere behind every note on this album, a sort of poetic tribute to everything going on in an urban environment.

Poetry is a key word here; much of the lyrics are "poetry" in the way people traditionally think of poetry, meaning spoken verses, not sung. Of course, Sonic Youth listeners know that this sort of spoken poetry is no more poetic than the sung poetry they usually do (or, for that matter, the sonic poetry they create with their instruments), and that Lee Renaldo and Kim Gordon's vocals usually are somewhere between "singing" and "speaking" anyway. Still, the spoken delivery is an interesting choice here, and it works well with the seemingly more relaxed music to give the album its constant environment of mystery.

The guitar playing on this album is fantastic. It's a "guitar album" in a way different from anything you'd expect "guitar album" to mean. The guitars are everywhere, and are always making odd waves of sound. The lyrics can be summed up by the song title "free city rhymes": they're beautifully weird ramblings that, together with the music, form a portrait of New York City in all its glory and weirdness (done in such a way that it could be about all sorts of other interesting locales).

My favorite song here is the title track, a spooky story-song in the Lee Renaldo tradition, half spoken and half sung in a pretty, gentle way. He sings about late nights; remembering people from the past; celebrities; dark, quiet city corners; highways; and "kids...up late dreaming quiet questions in a graceful mood." It builds and builds, with an increasingly chaotic cloud of sound. The song covers an expanse of ground, lyrically and musically, in 8 minutes (it's by far the longest song on the album), just like the album accomplishes so much in 42 minutes and 22 seconds. It's the shortest Sonic Youth album in a while, and one of the most impressive, which is saying a ton for a band that keeps putting out more impressive material every year.

Often I read where people say that it's all been done, that musicians nowadays must inevitably do what's been done before, just with their own personal touches. Well, I challenge you to show me another album that sounds anything like NYC Ghosts & Flowers. This is art in all its glorious beauty, a complex piece with a multitude of streets and corners.

Issue 2, July 2000 | next article

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds