Looking back at an overlooked but fiercely loved classic from the NYC noise rock giants
Even in a career as wide-spanning and acclaimed as Sonic Youth, are there any other songs that truly mesmerize the devotees more than “The Diamond Sea”?
The wistful nineteen-minute epic that closes out one of the band’s 90s-era highlights in Washing Machine, is pathologically treasured like few favorite songs by few favorite bands. It’s the type of song that happily takes up residence in your brain as a crucial component in the soundtrack of your existence, your daily toil. Besides containing some of Thurston Moore’s most gorgeously delivered vocals, the downrightvelegant guitar interplay throughout is a splendid reminder of the shadow Sonic Youth that had always dwelled beneath the surface pose of snotty NYC hipster brats making feedback with screwdrivers jammed into guitar strings. As was more and more evident as the 90s and 2000s wore on, Sonic Youth grew to embody a band as beautifully melodic as they once were crushing. 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star had “Bull In The Heather”, but not much else of note. The Youth were eyeing new horizons with interest.
This comes sharply into focus on the album’s other cornerstone, Lee Ranaldo’s disorienting, spiraling “Skip Tracer”. With frenetic half-spoken lyrics alternating between hallucinatory urban imagery and a (somewhat cruel) takedown of hallowed Vancouver indie duo Mecca Normal, the track drifts briskly along like a beckoning autumn wind, guitars intuitively interlocking and then separating to wander into oblivion on their lonesome. Though the underrated Ranaldo was only ever allotted space for a couple of his own arrangements per album, his efforts from the late 80s onward remain some of the band’s catchiest and most viscerally-thrilling achievements. Five years after Washing Machine, his towering title track for the unfairly maligned NYC Ghosts And Flowers would prove to be a darkly crowning touch, and following Sonic Youth’s acrimonious disbandment in 2011, Lee’s carried that bright flame into his frequently
inspired solo work and the occasional small press collection of poetry and essays.
VIDEO: Sonic Youth “Skip Tracer”
But what about Kim Gordon, you ask? Well, as expected, Kim delivers her usual handful of phantasmic, low-lit seductive jams, kicking off with the killer throb and churn of opener “Becuz”. “Wish I could breathe, but I can’t…don’t blow it”, Gordon seethes, as if writhing in agony in time to the track’s muted fuzz-blur. On the deceptively sweet, poppy “Little Trouble Girl”, she duets flawlessly with Pixies/Breeders mastermind Kim Deal, evoking something like a 50s slow-dance half-heard over a crackly intercom in hell. “Panty Lies”, meanwhile, is as close as Sonic Youth ever came to revisiting their earlier No Wave vibes after EVOL, all caustic corrosive acid, whispered threats, and serrated Jazzmasters dropped in wet, leaf-clogged gutters.
Out in the beautifully-spinning sunset haze of “Unwind”, Moore informs us that “morning becomes a kite tangled up in stars”, one of the most evocative, tactile images the Youth have ever put to tape, an image so pure and so crystalline-perfect it freezes you, awed, in place. Such lens-flared aesthetic fever dreams are a huge factor in why Sonic Youth’s 90s albums are cherished by so many listeners, whether they followed the band in the 80s or never bothered. The Youth didn’t age into defanged tranquility but rather became fixated on beauty.
There are moments in the brief, half-light no man’s land of “Becuz Reprise” where it seems as if reality itself will slip irrevocably away into some firmamental ether, but the reverb-doused guitars might continue on ever afterward, softly echoed in Steve Shelley’s light-as-a-feather drumming, everything floating as if broadcast from the very bottom depths of a cavern bejeweled with limestone. Such hyperbole becomes default and automatic when discussing music of such forthright, confident, and frightfully magical energy. Though SY do revisit those white-noise feedback wails of old in places (especially on the album’s other epic, its menacingly unfurling title track), the focus here is clearly on melody and timbre, the Youth even dipping a careful, alluring toe into jangly 60s psychedelia on another Lee-penned freakout, “Saucer-Like”, and on Moore’s strangely distanced yet ferocious “No Queen Blues”. “Junkie’s Promise” is the only piece on offer here to harken back to the grunge-rock flirtations of 1990’s Goo, but it’s a welcome coda on an album of beguiling experiments.
AUDIO: Sonic Youth “The Diamond Sea” (full version)
When Sonic Youth finally called it quits in 2011, the primary contributing factor seemed so pedestrian and yet so cruel as to wither the hearts of many a Gen X underground kid who’d grown up believing in true love thanks to the precedent set by their certified King and Queen Of Cool, Thurston and Kim. It wouldn’t be overstatement to note that many followers of the Youth felt deeply, personally betrayed. Thurston was supposed to be different than all those tired middle-aged male cliches, the midlife crisis, the trite and predictable affair with a much-younger admirer. It felt tawdry, somehow, in staunch ideological opposition to everything this group had meant to so many people.
But in the end, Thurston and Kim were just as much flawed human beings as anyone else. They just happened to be flawed human beings who made some of the most ingenious and compelling guitar music of the previous thirty years. They oozed out of the sewers and rotting abandoned tenements of terrifying late 70s/early 80s New York as consummate boho artists, and they’d played their hand in a major label sweepstakes and mostly survived unscathed. Kim and Thurston were not supposed to get divorced. Divorce was something your suburban parents went through, not the hippest two musicians alive.
So consider mid-90s benchmarks like Washing Machine from that perspective: a brilliant album by an effortlessly reliable band that everyone pulled for and believed in, who were held up as examples of everything fun and cool and talented and thrilling that a band could be in a post-rockstar musical landscape. Until they weren’t.
Now, outside of all entitled expectations, revisit Washing Machine. It’s still here.