Back on an indie label, minus Jim O'Rourke but plus former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, Sonic Youth are closing out this decade with an album that may not best their greatest from this decade (2001's Murray Street) but certainly affirms that they still have it. Whatever 'it' is. The Eternal is fantastic noise-pop that is arguably more successful than even Murray Street at splitting the different between noise/lengthy psychdelic improv and pop/melodic songwriting.
If you'll allow me a slight detour, I have to wonder how much having different members has done for Sonic Youth during this decade. Once the band stabilized with now-permanent drummer Steve Shelley around the late 80s, it wasn't until Jim O'Rourke became involved in 200ish that they released their most critically acclaimed and beloved album in years, Murray Street. After two solid albums that followed in the footsteps of that album (reaching a refined, polished, almost noise-less level with 2006's Rather Ripped), O'Rourke left the band to pursue his own projects and the band picked up Ibold as a full time touring bassist and eventual new member. After performing their classic Daydream Nation in its entirety a few times, not to mention going back to the indies after sticking with a major for so long, you have to wonder how much playing their older material along with the fresh blood of Ibold added to The Eternal. Certainly I don't remember noticing the bass lines of Sonic Youth songs before--but that's probably because for a few albums, they didn't bother with any.
So, then, the album. The Eternal sees the band playing all their best cards while adding some new wrinkles to the mix--'Poison Arrow' has the band singing together where normally Thurston, Lee, or Kim solely sang. It's weird to hear their voices together after so long but it works very well. Perhaps the biggest appeal of the album to me is the unforgettable force of Sonic Youth once again playing it loud, heavy, and noisy. While I loved Rather Ripped as much as anyone, it had a little too much drift and lightness, the guitars chiming when they normally ripped and tore. This album still has some of that, but it also brings the 'classic' Sonic Youth guitar skronk and mid 90s psychedelic improv to the fore again. The ultimate effect is an album that, yes, reminds me of my favorite Sonic Youth songs and albums but never sounds like a copy or throwback. Album closer 'Massage The History' has an almost 10 minute run time that makes me think of the Washing Machine/A Thousand Leaves era but has an acoustic guitar(!) and dreamy vocal from Kim that would be more at home on a Yo La Tengo album. 'Sacred Trickster' is probably the most thrilling shot in the arm opening song of a Sonic Youth album in well over a decade, propelling the album to full speed where even Daydream Nation took a few seconds to work up to the full frenzy of 'Teenage Riot.' And 'What We Know' makes excellent use of Ibold's bass, dancing with the always sublime Steve Shelley's drums, revealing what I always assumed about Ibold from his previous associations with Sonic Youth as well as underground in music in general: he was actually wasted on Pavement in a lot of ways. The focus of Sonic Youth has always been the upper registers of noise and atonality, but The Eternal is a refresher course both on how Shelley is and has been their secret weapon along with whoever is pondering the bottom end on bass.
The best compliment I can pay to The Eternal is that it has me curious to see where Sonic Youth will go next. Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped were good, even great, albums but they didn't leave one wanting more. The Eternal does. It may not end up on my best of '09 list but it's an endlessly satisfying release and probably the best I've heard this year from bands in the "old, established band have still got it" category. Regardless of how I feel about it by year's end, The Eternal will remain an excellent release from a band with no shortage of fascinating and great albums.