Perhaps it was optimistic to think this wasn't much of an issue anymore, but the reviews of nyc ghosts and flowers seem to fall under two general, and stupidly familiar, headers: (1) Sonic Youth is, and has been ever since 'round about 1990, coasting on soft/inferior material, of which this is the latest example; or (2) nyc ghosts and flowers is the best Sonic Youth album since Daydream Nation. Both responses are estimably off the mark for a straightforward reason, to wit: When everyone else rolls along on the wheel you helped invent, it's best to strike out for some less crowded place by yourself and find out what there is to see when you get off the main drag. nyc ghosts and flowers is the sound of the wheels leaving the blacktop, with startlingly beautiful results.
This is the brand of experimentation that both sides -- the avant-noise freaks and the mainstream press -- tend to ignore about Sonic Youth. It's a sticky issue, how to progress from playing pure brilliant noise in the early 1980s -- something absolutely nobody else was doing at the time -- to more tonal, more careful threnodies, over the course of a dozen albums, without ever turning into a parody or a shadow of your original, creative self. That Sonic Youth succeeds nearly every time is attributable primarily to its tendency to strike out in radically new directions every few albums, punk fans and A&R men both be damned.
nyc ghosts and flowers is, musically speaking, a subdued piece of work, maybe the most quiet and meditative one in the band's entire discography. It contains none of the squalling guitar workouts or static-filled bridges of Sister or EVOL, nor does it offer radio-easy songs like the handful on Dirty or Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star. nyc ghosts and flowers, in fact, isn't a rock album, or an alternative album, or an avant-garde piece, or any one very easily definable thing at all. What it is is a 42-minute goddamn wonderful sound-and-word sequence, melodic and atonal by turns. It includes meditations on stardom and isolation (the beautifully fractured "nevermind [what was it anyway]"), sex and confusion ("renegade princess"), death and remembrance (the title cut), politics and violence ("small flowers crack concrete") and the need for eccentricity within urban anonymity ("free city rhymes"), with rarely a distorted guitar raising its fretboard throughout. For all its clarity of tone, this might be the sheer noisiest Sonic Youth album in a handful of years; but the noise is sparse, lowdown and insinuating, as opposed to screaming and burning.
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After progressing from young punks to elder statespersons, as Sonic Youth did for better or worse years ago, people start calling albums like this one "mature," a term sure to come up frequently in connection with nyc ghosts and flowers. That's a shame, since it seems to imply complacence, and this album is edgier than most in the band's recent canon. But really, while the rest of the screechy punks fight with each other in the back seat, it's probably best that the more mature ones take the wheel. We might get to places we wouldn't have seen otherwise.