Sonic Youth are the definitive New York City rock band. Of that point there can be no valid dispute. Thurston Moore moved here in 1976, or just in time to witness and quickly participate in the most fabled and influential era of rock history in the city. While those Bowery stars mainly broke to bits or, as a best-case scenario gradually lost their luster, Sonic Youth just happily persisted. Through decay and renewal, tragedy and gentrification, the band continues to thrive. The extended renaissance calls into question whether burn out or fade away is actually the airtight binary we’ve been lead to believe. 30 years later, they’ve reaped the rewards of major label cash and are gracefully ditching that sinking ship with aptly-named The Eternal, their first release for another New York rock indie institution, Matador Records. Amusingly, given its power-pop muscle and focused unity, you suspect this is exactly the sort of record that would have been met with wild enthusiasm in the Geffen boardrooms of the mid-to-late 90s.
It’s positively odd, when you think about it, that Moore and Kim Gordon haven’t spent more time on their 16 studio albums exploring how their voices might coexist within the same song. While The Eternal isn’t a vast departure from their other 00s records, almost all the couple’s tracks feature backing vocals from the non-lead singer, or even just act as straight-up duets. In a reversal of the standard guy-girl trope, Thurston’s is often the smooth melodic element while Kim is the more of an instigator. Despite the sarcasm of “Anti-Orgasm”'s jeering no-wave, they sound more convincingly lusty than scores of hot-to-trot young singers. The vocals are atypically high in the mix throughout, highlighting vague slogans that would make great stickers on a skateboard (“Poison Arrow”’s “Your sex dream guitar is a mess,” for example). The easier to read “Malibu Gas Station” furthers Gordon’s starlet watching fascination, with an ode bare-crotched actresses and the cameras who love them. With odes to beat poets and punk singers elsewhere, they’ve certainly pinned down their preoccupations by now.
In the midst of the married togetherness, Lee Ranaldo’s tunes stand alone and mighty. Ranaldo often plays third wheel to the iconic pair, but his songs are the album’s best. “What We Know” hits notably hard on an album of hard hitters. While the new guy doesn’t call attention to himself too often, ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold absolutely kills this song. He lays a deep-gut, depth-charge bass line at the song’s start and then wrangles the song back from a squealing riff-storm with a formidable reprise nearly three minutes later. Ranaldo’s voice is less arch than those of his bandmates’, something akin to Michael Stipe as a slightly debauched history professor. Hearing him nod to Joni Mitchell with the declaration, “I’d drink a case of you,” is perfectly creepy. He later softens that edginess: “Walkin Blue” starts with the record’s most alien guitar tones but quickly turns into a surprisingly modest affirmation, a bit of sage advice from an elder statesman.
The Eternal is more unified in tone than Sonic Youth’s last three records, which almost makes it a bit tiring in a single sitting. Until the spaced out 10-minute closer, every song rocks just a little bit harder than it needs to. Even the sweetly tuneful “Antenna,” which vaguely resembles one of Moore’s recent breezy mid-tempo highlights, finds room for controlled blasts of chippy guitar noise. It’s a notably energetic and supremely confident record, if not as art-school adventurous as some of their past efforts. But it’s not like they have anything more to prove. People of sound mind can debate which of their LPs from this decade is the strongest, but it’s as solid a four-album run as any other stretch of their epic career. You sense that they’re way above the to-the-decimal point microcriticism of the day anyway. As Thurston snarls, “I don’t want to know who gets the highest score, that’s when my poodle pukes on the gallery floor.”