For a whole generation, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore practically defined what a hip, successful marriage could look like (until, almost three decades later, they suddenly didn’t). Behind both halves of that iconic pair, guitarist Lee Ranaldo would have been overshadowed as the band’s third songwriter, even if he’d penned more than one or two songs per album. But while the long arc of Sonic Youth’s career proved Ranaldo’s songwriting consistently vital, it’s in the last decade that he’s emerged as their most-consistent voice. From the sharp pop kernel it starts out as to the ecstatic roar it becomes, Murray Street’s “Karen Revisited” ranks as one of the band’s best recordings ever. The lucid anger of “Paper Cup Exit” sits in the top percentile of political punk responses to the Bush era. In retrospect, even the screech and rumble of “Rats” stands out from Rather Ripped. “What We Know” and “Walkin Blue” were the obvious standouts of The Eternal from listen one. The future of Sonic Youth is as uncertain as it’s ever been, yet Ranaldo’s voice has only grown stronger. There’s that saying about silver linings.
Though he’s independently released plenty of long-form experimental pieces over the years, Ranaldo’s quietly confident new effort, Between the Times and the Tides, seems likely to be misremembered as an actual solo debut. Absent just a bit of the dark guitar chemistry that’s made Sonic Youth such a singular art-rock brand (drummer Steve Shelley is present here, at least), the material is looser and sweeter than expected. The guitar playing is absolutely stellar, naturally, and surprisingly not prone to drift off to shrieking drones. It’s a rock record, as opposed to a punk one; relaxed where his Sonic Youth songs have been anxiously cerebral. His voice—it's tone a little like a thinner, gruffer Michael Stipe—isn’t perfect. But there’s never any attempt to hide it, or alter it in the manner so common among younger bands. There’s a certain thrill in hearing him stretch melodically. It sounds unfailingly honest.
Listen to advance single “Off the Wall,” its gorgeous melody and vulnerable sentiment. How plainspoken it is. Ranaldo often lands on basic rhymes that are a less than archly clever, delivered in a simple, deliberate cadence. Looking for the right word to describe the sound is tricky. “Modest” is an undersell, “adult” a back-handed compliment at best. But moments when he dodges youthful aggression are telling. After a minute of building sinister steam on “Fire Island (phases),” he pauses to state, “every time I look up, I smile and see your pretty face” and the music relaxes into sedate psych around him. In 1986, on EVOL’s “in the Kingdom #19,” he was a perverse J.G. Ballard, relating a car-crash hellscape without blinking; here, on “Shouts,” he lets someone else do the tense riot narration, remaining at a concerned melodic remove. To be clever, you could say that Between the Times and the Tides is Ranaldo getting his chance to play Thurston, finally swiping the pretty mid-tempo songs for himself. But a record this comfortable in its own skin isn’t channeling anyone else, really.