NYC Ghosts and Flowers
Reviewed by Charlie Bertsch
Thursday, July 13 2000, 2:44 PM
As a longtime fan of Sonic Youth, I was both pleased and perturbed by their recent turn away from rock and roll. My training in cultural studies has taught me to see through the pretense of the avant-garde. But there are times, particularly after I've had a good cup of coffee, when I find myself absent-mindedly running my fingers down the cutting edge. Does this represent a lapse of critical judgment or its return? I'm not sure. But it's at those moments that I feel the greatest fondness for Sonic Youth's migration to the outer limits of the electric guitar. As members of the band freely admit, they have had the rare privilege of being able to share their experiments in sound with a bigger audience than most. They have enough of a reputation and enough money left over from the by-products of their decade-old major-label deal to put out the music they want to put out, without worrying about vanishing from the media's radar screen. And they have been exercising this privilege over the last few years with releases on their own SYR label, culminating in last winter's Goodbye Twentieth Century, a double CD that showcased the band's interpretations of "real" composers like John Cage, Christian Wolff, and Steve Reich. It's an interesting record, but not one which is likely to rock your world. That's why part of me is reluctant to endorse Sonic Youth's drift into esoterica, even as I rejoice in the knowledge that Geffen Records has helped to pay for some of the least commercial music imaginable.
This brings us to the band's new major-label album, NYC Ghosts & Flowers. I wasn't that impressed with its predecessor A Thousand Leaves. I liked many of the individual tracks, but they didn't come together as a whole. That's a decidedly subjective assessment -- I know fans who liked the record a lot -- but one which I have yet to revise substantially, despite listening to the album over and over in the hope that it would grow on me. I purchased NYC Ghosts & Flowers the minute it came out, as I have with every Sonic Youth release since the 1980s. But I was apprehensive when I put it in my CD player. Had I outgrown my love for the band? Or, more pertinently, had the band outgrown me? The first few go-rounds suggested the answer would be "No." But I waited a while before sitting down to write this review, letting the record sit for a week and then returning to it, playing it for hours at a time on auto-repeat or just listening intently to a single track. And now my verdict is in.
I wouldn't necessarily say that the record has grown on me, since I loved it on first hearing. But my ardor has not diminished with time. Even though NYC Ghosts & Flowers shares most of its salient characteristics with A Thousand Leaves -- long songs that forsake the verse-chrous-verse structure of conventional rock songwriting, a preference for spoken words over sung ones, and a willingness to indulge in potentially embarrassing "poetry" -- the album appeals to me in a way that its predecessor doesn't. The hard part is explaining why this is the case. For one thing, NYC Ghosts & Flowers feels like a whole. This perception could be the result of my increasing familiarity with Sonic Youth's new -- or old, given the band's early history -- post-rock mode. But I think there's more to it than that. There's a hard-to-describe quality to Sonic Youth's rock songs that NYC Ghosts & Flowers manages to invoke, despite its reluctance to rock out. Part of it has to do with Steve Shelley's drumming, which propels the new tracks forward with an urgency missing from most of A Thousand Leaves. But that wouldn't be enough to achieve the peculiar effect of "rock in the absence of rock" if the guitars weren't along for the ride. I think that's what makes NYC Ghosts & Flowers seem more cohesive than A Thousand Leaves Where that record meandered somewhat aimlessly, the new one conveys a sense of direction despite its meditative sheen.
A lot has been made of the fact that Sonic Youth had to reconfigure their music-making after their specially prepared guitars were stolen last summer. I'm not sure you can hear their departure as clearly as other critics would like you to believe. But NYC Ghosts & Flowers does have something of a back-to-basics sound. The guitars maintain a relatively consistent tone throughout. For the most part, they also sound rather clipped, imbuing the record's songs with a sense of restraint, as if they were self-consciously holding back a potentially destructive force. At times, I was oddly reminded of the guitar sound in the disco-era band Chic, which also conveys a sense of energy held in check. Like the Chic song "Good Times," which pushes relentlessly forward despite repeating the same basic pattern, the tracks on NYC Ghosts & Flowers manage to remind us of rock's foundations -- what has sometimes been called its "intensional" aspect -- in the very act of repudiating the genre's conventions. Like the "NYC Ghosts" of the title, Sonic Youth classics like "Teenage Riot," "100%," and "Schizophrenia" are conjured up as lack. And, as any student of horror films knows, sometimes it's what we can't see or hear that is most powerfully felt.
NYC Ghosts and Flowers is available from Geffen/SYR Records
Charlie Bertsch interviewed Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in Punk Planet #35, Nov/Dec 1999