Their beloved DGC debut has a sense of a band courting the mainstream on their own terms
One of the main elements that’s crucial to mention in any retelling of the Sonic Youth story is that of the band as sonic chameleons, shifting into several distinct units through their lengthy career, only felled from probable hipster perpetuity by a bitter inter-band divorce.
We have the weirdo No-Wave art-freaks of Bad Moon Rising and EVOL ebbing into the more accessible Alternative Nation totems of Sister and Daydream Nation, and later the jammy elder statesmen phase, a band still sounding innovative and fresh up through their swan song, 2009’s underrated The Eternal. Many of the ingredients stayed consistent: the chiming, haunted dirge of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars, Kim Gordon’s ferocious caterwauling howls, Thurston’s folksy Neil Young croons. Perhaps no single album in the band’s catalogue showcases all of the band’s considerable strengths than 1990’s Goo, finding SY straddling the line between radio friendly art-rock and shrieking experimentation with a wry verve they would never again approach, a last call and a breakthrough all at once, a fuck-it-all punk blast and a mournful meditation on culture, fame, and being in a band.
It may very well be that Thurston, Kim, and friends were at a loss for where to go next following the soaring achievement of 1988’s double-album Daydream Nation, a watermark by any estimation. Goo, at times, has a sense of a band courting the mainstream on their own terms, making small concessions while obliterating others in a wall of feedback and noise, true to themselves but welcoming to any curious onlooker aching for something different.
At just under fifty minutes, Goo is a concise breeze of an album compared to the monolithic outpouring of Daydream, but where Sonic Youth pruned back its extended noise-fests and sludgy breakdowns to jarring interludes, they grew tenfold as compelling lyricists. From the LL Cool J-indicting feminist atom bomb of “Kool Thing” to the elegiac Karen Carpenter tribute of “Tunic (Song For Karen)”, these albums touch on pop culture implications and misogynistic insinuations that highlight the reserves of strength and sass within bassist and singer/songwriter Kim Gordon. “Kool Thing” featured spoken word elements from Public Enemy’s Chuck D that gestured towards hip-hop’s ascendance in the New York music scene, and eventually the world’s; Goo was no timeless album, it was every bit embodying of the era surrounding its manufacture, complex and untidy. Newly signed to Geffen’s ‘alternative-focused’ imprint DGC, the band were let loose to produce their warped and twisted ideal of a major-label breakthrough album.
Even supporting voices get a star turn here: underrated guitarist Lee Ranaldo fares especially well on Goo, the album featuring perhaps his most addictive and accomplished Sonic Youth song in “Mote”, buffeted along strong distorted winds by Steve Shelley’s propulsive and muscular drumming. Thurston’s opening salvo, “Dirty Boots”, is a crucial link in the long lineage of bands writing songs about touring, traveling, and performing music to hundreds or thousands of people each night, and everything such a situation implies. Even the video presaged things to come, its main character clad in a shirt bearing the logo of a certain trio from Aberdeen, Washington that wouldn’t remain obscure for long. Goo would not go on to seismically rearrange the charts as Nevermind would, but the fault-lines of the underground still rumbled pretty loudly in its considerable wake. Goo was proof that the question of where next? following a sizable band achievement could have any number of cogent answers, some of them haunting, some of them funny, some of them sad, all of them compelling.
That SY could make an album as deeply strange and fascinating as Goo while under the tutelage of a major record label speaks to the kind of dramatic restructuring the landscape would soon undergo in Nirvana’s wake, and while Sonic Youth benefitted in a number of ways from their younger friends’ breakthrough, that they never quite broke through to the public in the same way is perhaps a victory in itself. SY finished out their remaining career in singular fashion, occasionally stumbling (Experimental Jet Set, Trash, And No Star) but always righting themselves with subtle, surprising late-career triumphs (Murray Street, Sonic Nurse). When the band crumbled under the aforementioned domestic turmoil in 2011, a lot of people were heard to have said that there’d never be another band like them, and it’s still true. Conditions being what they are, a band like Sonic Youth achieving a comparable renown and audience in 2020 is a ludicrous idea. But the idea of any similar bands even fighting for a minuscule of such attention these days would never be possible without them, either.
So how does Goo fare as an album, thirty years later? Though the production does necessarily read as slightly dated, it still ranks near the top of the band’s full-length releases, in such hallowed company as Daydream and Bad Moon Rising. It was the perfect album to encapsulate what the dawning 90s would mean to a band of Sonic Youth’s pedigree, a vital correspondence from the front lines of the blossoming underground by a band that had more than a hand in getting it all started.
And even aside from any historical context, this album still absolutely slays, and there aren’t many albums from 1990 you could say the same for, are there? Maybe that’s Goo’s ultimate legacy, after all.