Review Summary: A period of maximal violence conveyed through song. Open-tuned guitars and lumbering rhythms embody the sound of confusion. This is a great choice for the soundtrack to hell. (I mean that in a good way)
It's hard to imagine at this late point, as the elder statemen of underground rock are firmly entrenched in middle age, that there was a time when they weren't commercially viable, well-known, or considered important or ground-breaking. Back before they had a fan base, before they were acknowledged as accomplished musicians and a major influence on rock music, they were struggling kids in downtown New York just trying to make a living. They had no aspirations of fame or notoriety, only the blood and sweat they put into the music. It was in this atmosphere of struggle and frustration that Sonic Youth recorded Confusion Is Sex, and as a result of its necessarily lo-fi nature and opposition to popular and mainstream music, Confusion Is Sex is far and away one of their most brutal and difficult records.
Confusion Is Sex was markedly different from their earlier EP and the works of Glenn Branca that inspired it. The preceding Sonic Youth EP was a more low-key record of floating, avant-garde guitar music that sometimes veered into a nearly funky territory. By contrast, Confusion Is Sex sounds more in tune with No-Wave's dissonant, stabbing guitars. This presumably results from Sonic Youth's disastrous tour with Swans, a seminal New York No-Wave group. Sonic Youth, who admired the powerful sound of Swans' music, had Swans frontman Michael Gira write the song The World Looks Red for Confusion. A cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" also shows their influences, though the song is nothing like the original. However, Confusion Is Sex is hardly an album to be lumped in with the No Wave and punk music that influenced it or the rock disco that the Sonic Youth EP sometimes resembled. Though it displays a debt to each, it sounds entirely unique for its time and for the band.
The key to the power of this album is its passion and immediacy. Its lo-fi quality and the ferocity of the performances contained therein show Sonic Youth at their most confrontational and powerful. The drums are poorly recorded, very grungy and thudding, sounding like they were recorded in a dank basement. They perfectly suit the chaos of the surrounding music; the growling vocals delivered at top volume, the clanging, stabbing, ear-shredding guitars, and amateurish, brooding bass throbs. From the opening strums of eerie guitar on "(She's In A) Bad Mood", it becomes clear that this music is twisted, eerie, and not for the faint of heart. Every song is fashioned from violent guitar gesticulations and animalistic, stomping rhythms. Everything seems calculated to displace the listener, to turn their perceptions of music topsy-turvy. Even what may be a familiar song to proto-punk fans, "I Wanna Be Your Dog", opens with a long section of ambient feedback before slamming into an incredibly primal and desperate live performance that's nearly unrecognizable.
This is a harrowing record, one that takes a certain type of listener to appreciate it. Even if you do like Sonic Youth's later output, there really isn't a way to compare this to them. If you can stomach this record, you may even learn to love it. Heck, you might even DANCE to "Inhuman" from time to time. But be warned. If go in expecting something akin to Murray Street, Sister, or anything else for that matter, this will rip your skin off and dislocate your brain. No bull.