The critical consensus surrounding Sonic Youth's output this decade, various minor degrees of disagreement notwithstanding, places the band in the midst of a resurgence dating back to 2002's heralded Murray Street. Viewed through the prism of New York's traumatic previous year, that album was popularly seen as that year's most New York of albums, the sound of a band pushed prematurely, perhaps, to the status of contemplative cultural emblem. Though the merits and demerits of that particular interpretation are open to some vociferous debate, the immediate impact of its dominance, Sonic Youth's subsequent accession to a new career plateau, isn't. No longer the fallen darlings of alternative rock, forever to be remembered for a peak in output growing increasingly distant, they'd bridged the generational gap and become to many the venerable godfather-figures they'd always threatened to be. They had, in a phrase, become unimpeachably 'classic rock'... well, sort of.
Before the reflexive charges of snobbery and/or gross critical incompetence begin to pile up, I should point out that that's not meant all that disparagingly. It means, for one, that more and more people who missed them the first time around drift further into the back catalogue-not that recent output hasn't been strong- listening to Daydream Nation or Dirty (their relatively recent reissues proving a case in point). It also means, however, that Sonic Youth are drawn increasingly centreward in a way that proves incongruous and unsettling to many; witness the Sonic Youth/Starbuck's compilation record, or more innocuously, 2007's Rather Ripped, their most polished set to date. What all this sketches, rather messily, is the familiar push-pull dynamic of a band of outsiders commercially and creatively born again as popular representatives of the very same. Its safe negotiation is a uniquely postmodern conundrum, and one that Thurston and Co. are more equipped than most to appreciate. Stylistically, they've been resolving the irresolvable for decades now; the shabbiness of Thurston Moore's earnestness has been shadowed at every turn by Kim Gordon's satirical deflation of the same. They've always hinted that they're as aware of contradiction and incongruity as the most sensitive of their fans, but The Eternal poses the very real possibility that, perhaps, the lure of a peaceful autumn has proven stronger than the risk of its compromise in the name of experiment.
As album-opener Sacred Trickster, or the standout single What We Know neatly outline, Sonic Youth have accrued more than enough musical knowledge and studio trickery in their 20+ years to succeed in the fusion of the deadpan art squall of their peak with (whisper it) radio rock. Though hook-laden in a very conventional sense, these songs also succeed in carrying with them just enough of their creators' indelible brand. In short, they're the Sonic Youth songs you'd use to minister to the unconverted and chronically skeptical; smooth, accessible, catchy, they risk nothing in their vertiginous showcase of a well-drilled and confident rock act. This, obviously, is not by any stretch of the imagination a bad thing, but the cracks begin to show slightly over the course of an entire twelve-song cycle. Where the above or Thunderclap (for Bobby Pyn), carried by its infectious backing vocals, succeed in striking a fragile balance between the imperatives of deferential accessibility on the one hand and satisfyingly full aural experience on the other, too often lulls in musical or conceptual ingenuity yield an unsettling sense of sterility. Calming the Snake, for example, a breathless Kim Gordon number in the mode of Kissability, feels, for all its swagger, curiously lacking in bite. The same could easily be said of the dated Anti-Orgasm or Malibu Gas Station, which, at 5 and-a-half minutes, feels a good deal more bloated than it looks on paper. It's in these moments of ill-conceived drift that the album's sense of cohesion is lost. The signature bursts of feedback emerge as too placed, too predictable, too regulated, too polished, with the hooks and lyrics neutered in a calculated vacuum. They become, in short, the accumulated markers of a Sonic Youth-ness, rather than the genuine article itself. In its worst moments, therefore, it's a quasi-ersatz experience that can't help but announce itself on a background of lyrical aimlessness.
The Eternal isn't a bad album, not by a long shot, but its tragic flaw lies in the very comfort, the ease, of its delivery. It's a charge that wouldn't stick to a lesser band, and in many ways a lesser band wouldn't be forced to walk such an impossibly fine line between their natural instinct and their public role, but as closer Massage the History drifts out, taking with it a great share of the album's ambition and unpredictability, you can't help but feel slightly, if reverently, frustrated.