Sonic Youth – Sister
Released June, 1987 on SST Records
Sister is the Great Leap Forward for Sonic Youth, the moment that their ambitions went from being grimey NYC no wave scenesters to being skewed soundscape-pop troubadours, the kind of band that would within four years be touring with Nirvana and introducing another world to audiences across North America. There’s nothing on Sister (or much afterward) that really even passes for “pop” in a loose sense. The song structures are chaotic, the shifts are hazy, the guitar work is seemingly influenced more by frenetic free jazz than it is by traditional rock ‘n’ roll mores. Sonic Youth was to rock music what William Burroughs was to literature, which is to say that they cast their chosen medium in a light that was at once gravid with meaning, slick with excitement, and fractured into a rather sinister psychedelic spray. Thurston Moore’s squalling guitar was a post-modern version of Hendrix, breaking down the sound of the guitar into it’s most basic essence and rebuilding it into forms that were only barely recognizable, especially in the anti-septic, wretchedly clean sounds of mainstream rock in the Eighties. Kim Gordon’s drone work outdoes the Velvet Underground, and in 1987 they were really the first group that could lay claim to such an immense effort; “Beauty Lies In The Eye” is on par with something like “Sister Ray”.
Sister is an album obsessed with the ghost of Phillip K Dick, going so far as to title the album as a reference to Dick’s twin sister, who died shortly after being born and whose memory haunted the writer for the entirety of his life. It’s a fitting subject for the music found within; Dick’s writing was often filtered through a psychedelic lens. Flow My Tears The Policeman Said reads like it’s written in the rainbow corners of an LSD trip, and the war between reality and perception is a staple of almost all of his short fiction, much of which was post-humously filmed and turned into recognizable mainstream cinema: Minority Report, Screamers, Bladerunner, The Man In The High Castle, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Next, and others. In terms of writers with Hollywood adaptations, Dick has always been more Burroughs than Grisham, of course; much of his work can be a bit impenetrable, in the same sense that Sonic Youth was impenetrable to a world where “Girls Girls Girls” was a hit single. As a guiding light for a Sonic Youth album, there’s few brighter than Dick.
In retrospect Sister can be seen as a bridge of sorts, between the old scattershot noise-grubbing Sonic Youth and the lusher, dreamier soundscapes they forged on their breakthrough album, Daydream Nation. A track like closer “White Kross” is as noisy and chaotic as anything they played on EVOL or Confusion = Sex, but “Schizophrenia” is deceptively gentle and uplifting. The driving force that made Sister more coherent and “pop” than previous Sonic Youth releases was Steve Shelley’s drum work, which keeps everything grounded with deft, solid drumming. Thus a track like “Tuff Gnarl”, which could have been soft in the middle and dripping from both ends, becomes a rock-solid (if impressively postmodern) song. “Pacific Coast Highway”, an essential Kim Gordon song, looms menacingly while somehow remaining languid and self-aware. The only off-putting moment is the cover of Crime’s “Hotwire My Heart”, which makes for a great standalone cut but jars somewhat as the sole straight-forward pop tune on an album that seems at times to be cut directly from the magnetic field of the Earth.
The album was also the first Sonic Youth record to win the approval of Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau, which was a big deal considering that relations between critic and band were so strained at one point that Thurston Moore would introduce the song “Kill Yr Idols” as “I Killed Christgau With My Big Fucking Dick”. It marks the point where the band ceased being another of Christgau’s “pigfucker” bands (a meant-to-be-derogatory label that also included luminaries such as Big Black and the Butthole Surfers) and became an up-and-coming (soon to be legendary) member of the white-hot alternative rock scene.
It can be tempting to read a lot into this album, since it’s Thurston Moore’s first major move since Sonic Youth dissolved into a tepidly scandalous divorce. Following a mid-life crisis that broke up both his marriage and his band, this new album represents the direction he wants to push his career in. Chelsea Light Moving answers that the direction he’s moving in is circular. It’s certainly spotlights his long-standing tendency towards heavy guitar work built on high gain and feedback. The tone is angry, although as per usual it’s a very diffuse anger whose target is unclear. It’s reminiscent more of the tone on Washing Machine or the heavier parts of Daydream Nation than it is of Rather Ripped or A Thousand Leaves, however; it’s guitar work that snarls through the gutter, levitating on its own squeals. It makes Chelsea Light Moving into a Sonic Youth record made in a world where Lee Ranaldo and Kim Gordon no longer exist, a dark world where Moore is free to follow whatever Sabbath/Flag blackness he wishes. Personally, that makes it a winner: Moore was always my favourite part of Sonic Youth, and Kim Gordon’s meandering, flat-voiced passages always left me a little cold. The problem, though, is that Moore very rarely leaves his comfort zone here; he rehashes his best Dirty moments but doesn’t use this new chapter of his life to say anything new. It leaves Chelsea Light Moving feeling like it ended up being less than it could have been; instead of progressing, it simply feels like Moore ends up wallowing in his own sullen quicksand, thrashing about in the same patterns until he becomes stuck. It sounds great, but it ultimately goes nowhere.