Sonic Youth - The Eternal - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Sonic Youth - The Eternal

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2009-06-09
Sonic Youth - The Eternal
Sonic Youth - The Eternal

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Sonic Youth’s final studio album, 2009’s The Eternal. Initially, the album was met with criticism from long-time fans because it veered to more traditional pop structures, and less on experimentation. The 2000s saw SY emerge from a critically derided experimental project NYC Ghosts & Flowers (a response to their equipment being stolen on tour) with a trifecta of near-perfect albums – 2002’s Murray St., 2004’s Sonic Nurse, and 2006’s Rather Ripped. Seeing how The Eternal fits into the grand SY story can be confusing; they switched to Matador – a beloved indie label – leaving behind the major label Geffen for a majority of their career. It only fits as the ending to their career, which in retrospect makes sense now.

Ten years removed from The Eternal, and it’s easy to see why it’s often cited as one of their weakest efforts. It’s got more “songs” on it, far fewer noise outbursts (though there are still plenty), and Kim Gordon’s spark isn’t felt as harshly as it has in the past – at least not in the same way, but we’ll get to that. But to understand The Eternal, one needs to consider what happened after it was dropped. Two years after its release, the independent music world determined that love no longer existed when Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced their separation after 27 years of marriage, thus ending Sonic Youth for good (most likely). In her 2015 memoir Girl in a Band (title taken from The Eternal’s opening track “Sacred Trickster”) Gordon describes the heartbreak of finding her longtime partner, best friend, and collaborator sneaking behind her back. The timeline is sketchy, but one can deduce that the problems between Moore and Gordon started long before the actual split in 2011.

It might be all speculation, or digging for something that’s not actually there, but in listening to The Eternal with the knowledge we have now, it’s easy to see how the album’s existence is actually a miracle considering the turmoil between the couple. After 30 years as a band, there’s something about The Eternal that just doesn’t jive like the previous records do. On “Sacred Trickster,” the brisk and noisy opener, Gordon asks “what’s it like to be a girl in a band? I don’t quite understand,” and it’s a question many frontwomen in music have to deal with from country music’s new leading ladies like Kacey Musgraves, to the constantly unfair criticism of rising star Billie Eilish. The need to justify being a strong independent woman in music might be adored by some publications, but fans who prefer their music white and male are easy to criticize and justify their stance based on ridiculous religious beliefs and/or the belief that women are the weaker gender.

It’s easy to paint Thurston Moore as the evil responsible for SY’s demise. Since the breakup, Moore has had the most output, releasing an excellent solo album in 2011’s Demolished Thoughts, in addition to multiple projects under various names like Chelsea Light Moving and the Thurston Moore Group. Is he as bad as Ryan Adams or Jesse Lacey? Heavens no. But his infidelity and dishonesty mar anything he’s done since and will continue to do so until he atones for what he did to Gordon. Thankfully, a majority side with Gordon on this debacle, who has spent the last ten years working on her own projects: outside of her memoir, she formed Body/Head with Bill Nace and delivered two full lengths of noise and drone, but also has a solo album (her first) due supposedly this year, prefaced by the excellent 2016 single “Murdered Out.”

With all of this out in the open, The Eternal can be seen as many things for the legendary rock band. Again, maybe it’s grasping at straws, but The Eternal screams (literally) of turmoil within the band. As with most swan song albums, it appears phoned in at times, and the switch to Matador gave way to more accessible songs like “Anti-Orgasm,” which finds Gordon and Moore sharing vocal responsibilities as they ping-pong back and forth for the chorus and verses and it features one of their more clean and enduring riffs. It’s still very much steeped in their progressive nature – something that even post-breakup Moore (perhaps ironically) has continued with by showing his advocacy for women’s rights and anti-war sentiments in the age of Trump. It features all of the hallmarks of a great SY song – heavy noise and guitar/bass interplay, a long drawn out finish, and its ability to relate two massive dichotomies like sex and war.

The Eternal misses its mark more than previous entries too, like with “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” which is a sendup about the American beat poet from which the band pulled several influences from. Throughout their career, SY always appreciated the multiple forms of art across all mediums, especially poetry given their longstanding relationship with William S. Burroughs. “What We Know” though is one of the better Lee Ranaldo fronted tracks in the 2000s-era of the band, and he gets great support from Gordon on backing vocals. What’s important to derive from The Eternal though, is how wonderfully Gordon puts on a face despite what’s happening in the background. Her raspy delivery on “Calming the Snake,” ranks up there with The Eternal’s best tracks, something The Eternal actually does really well in highlighting not just Gordon’s diversity, but also her perseverance.

My favorite track from The Eternal though is ”Antenna,” a six-minute continuation in spirit of Sonic Nurse’s warm riffs, coupled with Moore’s gorgeous harmonies, it’s everything I adored about 2000s SY. We don’t talk about Thurston’s guilt and how it’s impacted his music very much. Is “Antenna” about Eva Prinz, the woman who stole Moore’s heart away? Or is “Antenna” about the lack of communication between Gordon and himself? “Radio transmitting nowhere/it’s far away,” and then “she’s far away.” To date, Moore absolves Prinz of any wrongdoing, preferring that all hate be directed at him, which is fair. I won’t pretend to be an expert on relationships or marriage but having the back of your partner is a huge part of it, and Moore’s defence of Prinz is admirable, if not a bit misguided when you consider what he did to Gordon, especially during her battle with breast cancer.

The Eternal gets a bad reputation largely because of how many throwaway tracks there are. “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” is a typical SY song, while paying homage to the late Germs frontman Darby Cash – but it’s actually not a bad song, and features some of the more playful sides of SY over the years. The album is full of this playfulness that strikes me as being a front for all of the chaos behind the scenes that not even the rest of the band were aware of apparently. But it all comes crashing down with the last few songs. “No Way” today feels like an attack on Gordon, a song unsurprisingly not written by her, that states “You know you hurt me once/and you know you’ll never hurt me again/cause I’m sick of all yr games/you can’t trick my love with sin.” He’s out for blood here, but Kim’s moment is coming.

All of this is leading up to “Massage on History,” which Gordon has stated is clearly about her relationship with Thurston Moore, and her attempt to hang on. It’s fascinating to hear it now, after ten years, and to realize just what she’s conveying to her best friend. It takes courage to put yourself out there, to acknowledge your pain, on a commercially released record to be consumed by the masses. “I’m witness to what you do/Anything that you feel/in between, in between/you and me, you and me/bound at sea/floating on debris.” Gordon pours her heart out to Moore, “let’s massage history” – this is the part that makes The Eternal one of the most heartbreaking Sonic Youth records, all the more crucial because it would be the final closing track for them. A bookend to a band who defined a genre. The period on the final sentence of a great American novel.

Will Sonic Youth ever get back together? It’s doubtful. Bridges have been burned so badly that they’ll never be able to patch them up. I don’t even think Gordon would consider it if she was poor and homeless (an extreme she’ll likely never reach thankfully). So, while The Eternal has some disposable cuts, it’s still a classic. It’s a grab-bag of SY traditions, mixed with animosity and deceit, being one of their dirtiest content-wise. Oddly enough, it was also their highest charting record to date, proving that even at their least cohesiveness SY would still be an enigma. These facts were promising at the time, but also very depressing considering the aftermath of The Eternal.

Comments (2)

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Wow. This is an excellent review. And the album, which I still haven't listened to, might be the one Sonic Youth album that I can get into (as an album). They can be a difficult band - lots of great songs, interspersed with crazy songs, or even...

Wow. This is an excellent review. And the album, which I still haven't listened to, might be the one Sonic Youth album that I can get into (as an album). They can be a difficult band - lots of great songs, interspersed with crazy songs, or even boring songs. So far Washing Machine has had the most songs that I like on it, which is what makes it most "accessible" for me.

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This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Great work Tim! I was really down on this record for a long time - it's always been hard for me to separate my feelings on the album from my feelings on the band's demise. That all being said, your write-up here inspired me to go back and...

Great work Tim! I was really down on this record for a long time - it's always been hard for me to separate my feelings on the album from my feelings on the band's demise. That all being said, your write-up here inspired me to go back and re-visit, and to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed the album much more than I remembered.

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