It's a wonder that Sonic Youth manages to even release Sonic Youth records, given the flurry of activity that envelops Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon, Lee Ranaldo, Steve Shelley, and Mark Ibold outside of their work in the band. Their combined creative enterprises include books of poetry, 'zines and record reviews, four or five record labels, appearances in nearly every music documentary made in the past 10 years, roles in Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl, a clothing company hawking "clothes for cool moms," and a full-scale Pavement reunion.
But in addition to keeping busy with side projects, the group has maintained a steady work ethic when it comes to their main band, releasing their 16th studio album The Eternal this summer. The record marks the band's return to an indie label, their debut on the prominent Matador Records. The truly surprising aspect is not simply that the work exists, but how vital their records remain. Dedicated to late Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, the album is as visceral and fierce as anything the band has done, made all the more remarkable considering the band's status as alternative rock statesmen.
Perhaps the band members' work outside of Sonic Youth is what keeps them so invigorated. While many predicated the band's ascent to superstardom in the wake of Nirvana's commercial success, Sonic Youth chose to remain defiant, as apt to engage in the avant-garde classicism of their SYR series, working with compositions by modern composers like John Cage, Steve Reich, and Christian Wolff, as they were to blast out no-wave, proto-punk pop songs, the kind that Kurt Cobain admitted to co-opting and riding to the top of the charts. Even as they willingly engaged the major-label scene, signing to Geffen in 1990, the band maintained its allegiances in the underground. Sonic Youth asserted their importance in introducing a whole generation of slacker kids to outsider music by using Spin and Rolling Stone as a pulpit for preaching the gospel of white noise, hardcore history, and experimental music, boosting the profile of everyone from folk/blues/noise-nik John Fahey to science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
The band, particularly Moore, speaks with an elegance and sensitivity unusual in punk circles, discussing art with a passion that doesn't seem elitist and giving listeners a peek into a world limitless, one where the link between Madonna and The MC5 is electrifyingly tangible. Speaking with reverence about the burgeoning sexuality that turned matinee hardcore bands into post-punk adventurers, Moore earned the recognition of innovators like Neil Young and Patti Smith, and even those who didn't "get it" at first — like former Village Voice music editor Robert Christgau, who came around and acknowledged the band's mastery of its craft.
But for all the band's explorations of otherworldly sounds, it's the powerful presence of Kim Gordon that has served as the linchpin of the group's singularity. Though she's just as qualified to explore the outer realms as Ranaldo or Moore, her primal, utterly human sexiness is the most evocative element displayed on the group's records, and her detached, New York-cool vocals alternate between ghostly and outright captivating. It's no wonder that Moore writes about her in his book Alabama Wildman as the be-all-end-all, the kind of undeniable rock chick not content to merely act as boys' muse, who is instead an active, jaw-dropping creative force herself. With guts on display, Sonic Youth have achieved a greater legacy than their meager roots suggest, molding themselves into the kind of standard-bearer a truly living rock band should be: one that's always changing, growing, and destroying conventions.