Review Summary: Sonic Youth's fourth album hints at the genius they'd show in their next three albums and ride out the rest of their career with. It's not entirely developed in some parts, but there's enough texture, melody, and smarts in here to make it an excellent alb"My Violence is a Dream, a Real Dream."
Thus begins EVOL
, the fourth album from now highly esteemed alternative outfit Sonic Youth, and a more fitting first lyric could not be sung. EVOL
is a slick half hour plus of dreamy textures, droning noise, and twisted, violent lyrics that create a tight fourth album for the Youth. The most melodic album of their career at this point, EVOL
oozes with the potential Sonic Youth would fulfill with their landmark classics Sister
and Daydream Nation
that capped off their 80's discography a couple years later. Looking back from now at the young Sonic Youth, not too much has changed in the grand scheme of things. Thurston Moore still sounds 16 years old, Kim Gordon still sounds deranged to the point of inaccessible, and Lee Ranaldo, who recites his first rhymeless, tuneless vocal poem on EVOL
, is still fricken cool. This is a testament to the Youth's longevity; twenty years later, they still sound edgy, but not enough to stop enough people from buying their albums. They are able to bridge the gap between melody and dissonance seamlessly, and that point of accessibility keeps their fans coming. It wasn't always that way though. EVOL
shows the band transitioning from the more tuneless debut trio of albums to the more lets-not-say-poppy albums of their later career. The result is a sleek, dreamy album that rivals Sister
and maybe even Daydream Nation
Perhaps a good way to describe EVOL
is that it sounds like the soundtrack to a psychological nightmare. Throughout the album the lyrical themes detail some horrible dream, and the music backs it up. Each and every note and guitar jangle comes with a feedback and an essence of fuzz, creating a similar sense to walking through quicksand: instead of being the comfort of concrete, it's different, soft, creepy. The opener, "Tom Violence", finds Thurston marching to percussionist Steve Shelley's slave-driving snare hits while crying "My violence is a dream a 'real dream'/ a skinny arm, a crush on living sin/ my violence is a sleeping head, nodding out to rising bliss"
with a mixture of apathy and deformity, setting the tone for the rest of the album, vocally and musically. There's a swell in the middle of "Tom Violence's" already menacing tone, and it appears as though all hell is set to break loose, but the band retracts into another verse, as though they didn't have the energy to unleash the chaos they have. Sonic Youth do this several times on the album, and this actually works in EVOL
's favor: You know something amazing and terrible is coming, you just don't know when.
This sense of dread stays consistent throughout the album. The band will swell and lash out every so often, only to bring it back to restore security. Occasionally the Youth will draw it back so far seemingly just to relax and implement a false sense of safety, such as on Kim's lullaby from purgatory "Secret Girls". Introduced by the limping trudge of what sounds like some horrible villain, the aesthetic abruptly switches to the innocence of a toy piano in an attic somewhere. It's sweet and eerie at the same time, hypnotizing to the point of complacency. Thus, when the hideous screaming that preludes "Marilyn Moore" comes, it's chilling, how stark the contrast is. A good 4/5's of the album insists upon playing this contrast to form a wild yet still cohesive selection of songs. Ranaldo's first solo song, "In the Kingdom #19", is by far the most intense piece of music EVOL
offers, with Lee chanting without rhythm or rhyme, only desperation, the details of some horrible story, mocking his protagonist while Thurston, Shelley, and Kim make mayhem behind him. Ronaldo reads hideous phrases like "Glistening highway mirage groans the slick surface, careening into first the small mammal, and then screeching along the guard rail, scraping paint and throwing sparks like sheets of pure terror for 400 yards over and over..."
as though he were dictating a thesis paper on some mind-numbing subject. The fact that he's vividly describing an explosive auto crash with such boredom and maybe even a little admiration ("The beautiful paintjob hopelessly marred/ smoke and flames. Alright. So nice."
) is unnerving, to say the least. But as with most of EVOL
, Sonic Youth contrasts this track by setting it between two of the more poppy tracks of the album, "Star Power" and Green Light".
There's a curious amount of such poppier tracks on EVOL
, perhaps to highlight the difference between the atmospherics that Sonic Youth do so well, or maybe to keep EVOL
from getting too damn serious. The point is, not all of them work. The Youth are known to mock pop music from time to time (read: Ciccone Youth), and they do so hilariously and excellently at times on EVOL
. Late album barnburner "Expressway to Yr. Skull" is one of Sonic Youth's finest tracks, albeit one of the most minimalistic. Kim rides one bass note for the song chunk of "Expressway", and lets Thurston and Lee create more soundscape-like music as oppose to their usual drones. Shelley rides a jovial beat, and everything seems ready for a single, including one of Thurston's catchiest vocal lines this side of Teenage Riot. Thurston opens with an enthusiastic, deadpan "We're gonna kill the California Girls"
and sets off an album highlight. After a few minutes of prodding, Thurston whines the main lyric "Mystery Train, Three Way Plane. Expressway... To Your Skull!"
, and all hell breaks loose. An explosion of drum rolls, doomish bass and guitar destruction creates the climax that EVOL
has been hinting at all album. The destruction is long, passionate, and seemingly final, with a good 3 minutes of static and fuzz riding out the rest of the track. But yet, with such a serious and final ending, Sonic Youth end EVOL
with the ridiculously anti-climactic "Bubblegum", the "Some Girls are Bigger than Others" of the Youth's career. "Bubblegum" is one of two let downs in EVOL
that prevent it from being a real classic, the other being "Star Power", and the placement of both songs are what cause it. "Star Power" destroys the Nightmare on Elm Street feel of the first two tracks, and "Bubblegum" is just an out of place oddity. Neither track is truly bad outside of context, but in terms of the flow that is EVOL
, they're just big rocks.
So in the end, EVOL
never really delivers the smash-bang ending it looks like it's going for. But that's not a bad thing. It leaves the listener feeling like he/she's just gone through a pitch black tunnel, and maybe something moved in the distance, but nothing jumped out. The point is, it's safe, but it's still a task to go through it again. As a Sonic Youth album, EVOL
is as strong as Sister
technically, but it lacks the flow of the latter. It doesn't quite match Daydream Nation
, the album all Sonic Youth albums are judged against, but they're two different entities. With EVOL
, Sonic Youth went for a feel, and achieved it to near perfection. The textures are murky, the feel uneasy, and when they sure as hell know how to use dynamics to their advantage. Every crescendo and abrupt diminishing of sound is powerful, and even when they maintain the same volume, they can still make it acute. In the end you could say it's a lot like every other Sonic Youth album. The Kim tracks are abrasive, the tunings and dissonance are epic, and Lee Ranaldo still looks like he's 40. But there's something that sets EVOL
apart from the other Sonic Youth albums, you just have to be ready for it.
In the Kingdom #19
Expressway to Yr. Skull