On their most melodic album since Washing Machine, the NYC rock greats returned to a city they never left
I’m not the most reliable narrator to tell the story of the only Sonic Youth album that I think is reliably considered a “comeback.”
For one thing, you’d be pressed to find a bigger fan of the album it’s coming back from; the polarizing, thunderously beautiful and compellingly fractured NYC Ghosts and Flowers from two years prior. Murray Street is not as rewarding over the long term for diehards as its genuinely challenging predecessor. But what would you expect of the Sonic Youth album that everyone considers refreshingly normal?
Murray Street’s two biggest gifts are probably bringing the band into the Internet era — an easy place to jump in for new fans, which is just about the only thing Flowers and its impossibly vast, woodsy precedent A Thousand Leaves didn’t achieve — and emotional import, which isn’t usually associated with Sonic Youth’s unflappable cool. It chronicles their experience recording mere blocks from 9/11, their home being attacked. Naming it after that location, I think, set this narrative in motion a lot more than a seven-song cycle with titles like “Radical Adults Lick Godhead Style” and “Sympathy for the Strawberry” and track times like 11:10, 9:06, 7:56, and 6:24 on more than half of it. Refreshingly normal, what?
It probably is as simple as Flowers featuring a bounty of spoken word and Murray Street emphasizing melody more than any Sonic Youth record since Washing Machine — with which it shares a post-hippie aesthetic that Lee Ranaldo has credited to his love of the Grateful Dead — if not Daydream Nation, if not ever.
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But Flowers didn’t feature anything as long as 11-minute Murray Street centerpiece “Karen Revisited,” which drowns in feedback well before the halfway mark, and two of the first three songs on Flowers are as gorgeous as anything the band had put to tape: the dreamsicle “Free City Rhymes” and the toylike kid-friendly jam “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway),” one of Kim Gordon’s cheekiest performances ever. Both albums are great, and it’s remarkable how little had to be shifted from one side of the spectrum to the ever for the public to feel the band regained their balance.
They’re also just such a consistent band, eternally confident in their mastery of what they do, that I’d say they stretched a little too much with spoken word and the otherwise scene-beloved Jim O’Rourke’s crumply textures right at the moment that people really wanted them to make a bad record so we could all take a break. That’s precise what Amy Phillips reported in her Village Voice review of Murray Street at the time, and she’s since apologized, just as her onetime Pitchfork colleague Brent DiCresenzio has to Thurston Moore personally for giving NYC Ghosts and Flowers a literal zero for a rating. I choose to interpret this to mean that the snark economy of then-young journalism lacked the tools to comprehend an artist being great for this long without changing much of what they do. Sometimes critics overrate albums that let their imagination run wild to write about. Sometimes they give up on ones they don’t know how to say anything new about.
So let’s try. “The Empty Page” is upbeat, “Disconnection Notice” kinda bluesy, “Rain on Tin” sprawling in a more leisurely, contained way than this band’s usual. That is, the first three songs on Murray Street, nearly half, are completely devoid of chaos. They’re clean, pretty, maybe even linear. I don’t really believe that Sonic Youth set out to create something intentionally soothing or relieving, but they’re only human. Who’s to say that 9/11 and negative online press, not to mention possible label feedback or diminished sales didn’t affect their songwriting mood? Thus, Murray Street was the first Sonic Youth album to be widely acknowledged as comfort food. Then “Karen Revisited” horns in with its fan-service title, completing some kind of trilogy with “Tunic (Song for Karen)” and “Karen Koltrane,” and one of Lee Ranaldo’s most bracing turns ever, in his hippy-dippy “Eric’s Trip” mode with guitars swirling around his shamanistic delivery.
The album never gets noisier, with Kim Gordon’s prerequisite faux-tantrum “Plastic Sun” occupying just two whole minutes of almost danceable on-the-beat ranting compared to its most staticky NYC Ghosts and Flowers counterparts. And the lightly swollen grandeur of “Sympathy for the Strawberry” is just a gorgeous way to go out, nine minutes of hummable drone and Gordon’s microtonal singing.
In some ways, Murray Street really is a Sonic Youth-by-numbers album, and in many more ways, that’s what people seemed to want from the band, despite taking them for granted since, oh, Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star on charges of coasting on that same sound they’d mastered. It killed their most avant stretch elegantly and set up three more albums, two of which are also among their most melodic and absolute best.
They went home again, in the city they never left.