Album Reviews

Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse

(Geffen) UK release date: 7 June 2004


The Youth appellation was always less apposite than the Sonic, but its still a surprise to find the ‘Yoot still furtive as a unit after all these years. Surfacing from the racket-embracing, margin-hugging American milieu that brought forth Big Black, The Swans, and Pussy Galore, the ‘Yoot were always less zealously brutalist than their contemporaries.

They succeeding in creating a kind of bubblegum noize replete with gnarled Beat poetry for those looking for the roadmap from No Wave. As Ciccone Youth, they recorded self-consciously degraded versions of Madonna‘s Into The Groove and Burnin’ Up, and professed a desire to hang out with La Ciccone and her then-beau Sean Penn.

Despite the appeal of their goofy regard for pop culture, The ‘Yoot’s fierce brew was cooked up in a different kitchen altogether. Their 1999 album Goodbye 20th Century featured ‘covers’ of such tabloid darlings as Steve Reich and John Cage, a kind of Pin-Ups for the Stockhausen generation. It also acknowledged The ‘Yoot’s true lineage, that of active students of tonality. By channelling their studies through textured and controlled distress, they were ultimately more John Zorn than Madge and Sean.

Sonic Nurse is as cohesive a collection of material as any in their history. The Yoot’s particular din was esseentially a meta-noize, less intuitive than the garage-bands beloved of Nuggets compilers or the electric blues of the current wave of wired rockers. They were always more knowing about the century’s clangorous jazz and rock’n’roll freak-outs. But there’s room enough in this Rock world to accommodate old-fashioned ideas like process and thought. Throughout Sonic Nurse, the ‘Yoot successfully tame the feedback beast of Noize to work in the service of structure and form.

Sonic Nurse is also a reminder of how far The ‘Yoot have come, and how the rest of the world has caught up with them. The effect of the likes of records such as EVOL and Daydream Nation was one of heightened experience, engineered through a primal screech that was at once cathartic, profound and funny ha-ha. Those far-off works now seem like prophecies of a disenfranchised and disillusioned American epoch. So much so, that the ‘Yoot now seem like bemused elder-spokespersons for generational drift, as much a part of the alt-American landscape as Gus Van Sant or David Lynch, all in tune with the “memory, disease, across the United States” of Paper Cup Exit.

The atmosphere of Sonic Nurse consists primarily of cinematic isolation, with furtive necessity a consistent theme. The travails of the dissolute protagonist of Unmade Bed (“look who’s come back home again / the loser looking for a lucky break”) are evoked as much by the existential narrative as the languid guitars that leave much unspoken. Kim Gordon’s Dude Ranch Nurse is the emotionally wasted servile vessel of the legendary, legal cathouse (“Nobody knows the shape I’m in”) who is as much in need of any stimulant to the senses as the punters she services (“Let me give you a shot / Its something to do”).

That legendary sonic noize is used throughout Sonic Nurse like silence, a consistent acoustic reality, used not as extemporisation of fury, but to affect mood and change. The sonic life of the ‘Yoot goes on, and Sonic Nurse is as lively and scary an encapsulation of rock ‘n’ roll noise as you’ll find this year. It’s still compelling to hear it in the skilled service of one of its prime exponents.


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Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse