Death Poems for the Living Gods of America: Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers Turns 20

Where Pitchfork went wrong about SY’s most underrated LP

Sonic Youth NYC Ghosts & Flowers, Geffen 2000

 

The same year that Brent DiCrenscenzo gave Kid A the most famous rock review of my lifetime and a 10.0 at a fledging publication then called Pitchfork Media, he also gave Sonic Youth’s NYC Ghosts and Flowers the total opposite rating.

He’d never awarded something a 0.0 before, and spends the entire first graf saying as much. I was 15 at the time and wouldn’t go on to discover Pitchfork until college, where I’d spend a lot of time disagreeing with it. But both these albums meant about the same amount to me in high school (which DiCrenscenzo wasn’t far out from himself), and only one would go on to become a part of my life almost weekly for the next 20 years. It wasn’t Kid A, a great album nevertheless. But Sonic Youth was the band I took with me, and their less verse-chorus-verse period that began with 1994’s late-night Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and mostly culminated in this record, has turned out to be my favorite music by anyone, ever.

I can’t necessarily tell you what it’s doing, why it gets there, or what gave Sonic Youth in particular the betting odds to make spoken-word, shattered-porcelain collages, and weirdo flying monkeys chants the most durable, endlessly listenable avant garde in alternative anything. But I can guess. There is such thing as a noise band. But anyone who’s given an ear to ten minutes of Daydream Nation or Dirty will tell you this is a melody band, guarded behind stray feedback grenades like Nirvana or anyone else who writes true songs. Sonic Youth has just gone further than anyone else in giving those songs extended “jams” in which the elements disintegrate and bleed and corrode into avant moments before snapping the tune back into place like a reset bone.

It’s not terribly different from Phish if you replace the jamming with psychedelic earscapes of hacked-pedal-and-treated-pickup cyclones. I’d call plenty of Sonic Youth moments pretty hippie themselves, especially on 1995’s gurgly-beautiful Washing Machine and 2002’s disarmingly clean-toned Murray Street when Lee Ranaldo gets talking. NYC Ghosts and Flowers has one too, the title track, one of the band’s most intense and soul-burning codas ever. But you barely notice the shift from talking to ominous singing. You just notice it growing louder and more claustrophobic.

 

VIDEO: Sonic Youth “NYC Ghosts & Flowers” Live in Sao Paolo, Brazil 10/20/2000

Really, except for Daydream Nation and maybe Dirty, all Sonic Youth sneaks up on you. Few bands had such a fluency for themselves, a mastery of their own private language of odd tunings and counter-tonalities that drew a map to melodies they weren’t actually spelling out but your brain would connect for you anyway. Sonic Youth melodies are like if the phantom limb phenomenon was the opposite of torturous: If you could feel a presence there that made you more whole. Now I’m sounding like DiCrenscenzo. But 20 years later, NYC Ghosts and Flowers deserves this flowery shit, and even the guy who gave it a zero has come around to saying so

Problem is, the desire to punish them for beat-poetry bullshit was more pretentious than the record itself. It’s hard to imagine any SY fan hitting a wall with Thurston’s “Free City Rhymes,” the gorgeous dreamsicle opener with new recruit Jim O’Rourke’s broken-bottle vortex ending. And it’s hard to imagine any Kim Gordon fan not adoring her especially kid-like single “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?),” with its gummy instrumental tension finally giving way to “Boys go to Jupiter / Get more stupider / Girls go to Mars, become rock stars.” Lee Ranaldo has a habit of stealing the show on even the band’s best-known releases (“Eric’s Trip,” “Wish Fulfillment”), but the title track here proceeds directly from Washing Machine’s winsome “Skip Tracer” (“Hello! 20! 15!”) to something darker, his most gripping moment on record.

It’s those in-betweens that you’ll have to decide if they’re your type. Thurston’s goth-puppeteer vibe on “Renegade Princess” and “StreamXSonik Subway” caught fans off-guard with its mordant catchiness, but give them a chance like all SY and you shouldn’t be able to get “We’re gonna fight for your blood tonight” out of your head, or for that matter, “Fell asleep and missed my stop / Got rousted by a low-beam cop / Got a ticket-patch for elicit flop / Then froze me with his Jesus gun.” Kim Gordon’s “Side2Side” and “Lightnin’” are true experiments, graduated from those SYR side EPs and ready for prime time. They fit in comically, beautifully, and cathartically with the rest of the song-noise here, and in headphones could open up your brain’s right hemisphere.

Unlike Kid A, it’s harder to sell the less obvious contemporaries on paper, especially during the Experimental Jet Set and A Thousand Leaves years, where incremental, microtonal changes ruled over sharp, fast rock decisions and any description ultimately makes them sound like Tortoise or something. It’s much, much easier to take them down by simply quoting the spoken bits about “blue jean fucking” or “death poems for the living gods of America.”

NYC Ghosts & Flowers inside cover art

But you could do the same thing with, say, “My Friend Goo” or any other Kim Gordon lyric that mentions underwear. Sonic Youth are sonic. These silly overtures are subsumed directly into an expanding universal guitar language that the converted already know and love. Their incomparable pacing, their trick hooks, their ear for when to quit and when to light a long fuse, these are all put to the absolute test on their most sonic album, made with all-new equipment after their customized instruments were stolen just prior. If you barely got past 1992 with them, you may not have spent the last 20 years realizing this mode could become their most satisfying and workable into your daily routine. But if you know, you know.

This quartet made some of the most beautiful and strange music that’s ever existed, and NYC Ghosts and Flowers is their most beautiful and strangest. It’s ultimately not far off from the startlingly clean-toned follow-up Murray Street or their first talking book Washing Machine. But how it rewires your pleasure center is the key to all their work, turning dissonances into hooks you crave and O’Rourke’s bleeps and motor-revs and cherry bombs into moments you wait for. Most band’s deepest explorations only warrant so many visits.

But in Sonic Youth’s freest albums to see release on a major label, you could live there. Many of us already have been.

 

Dan Weiss

Dan Weiss is a freelance music journalist based in Collingswood, New Jersey. He is the former (and last-ever) reviews editor at Spin magazine.

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