Review Summary: -compres-sor-
To say that Sonic Youth’s millennium turnover records had walked a firmly populist line is an understatement. The foursome of studio albums that closed out their storied, decades-long run, was bursting with creativity of a decidedly more conventional sort than their spartan no-wave beginnings, and offered only brief snippets of the kind of brash and jarring noise monoliths they’d rode in on all those years ago. It’s difficult and only a little speculative to say why a band that at that point had little to prove (or gain for that matter) wouldn’t spend their latter days thrashing in utter indifference to pop sensibilities or communal relevance. But whatever rumours were floating around at the time, that Sonic Youth had lost their strident edge, were intermittently squashed by the irreverent SYR series that the band had resurrected from their initial 90’s run, and whose sporadic output ran the antithesis to their softer post-2000’s releases, only getting brasher, louder and more abstract, even as the official LP’s fizzled into benevolent noise pop.
The 7th entry into the series, J’accuse Ted Hughes, arrived in late 2008, just as the band wrapped the last of the touring for the densely pretty Rather Ripped, and only a year before The Eternal would become their sudden and deflated swan-song. The LP is comprised of two tracks, both one-off’s that were either improvised or created for separate events.
The story behind the A-side title track is the better one, though its genuineness is always in question. Picked for the peer-selected line-up of 2001’ All Tomorrow’s Festival by Mogwai along with a slew of post-rock acts, Sonic Youth forwent their newer material, their ‘hits,’ and the hoary early days’ spasms, and instead launched into a 23-minute improvised long-form song, causing a mass exodus of the spectators. The track, a slow, deliberate churn, spends a good 11 minutes in a dismal roil, with Kim Gordon dispensing her ragged atonal moans over the top, before the band finally kicks it into second gear, and slowly takes the song into higher strata, building in volume and scope, touching on shoegaze, doom metal, industrial and alternative riffs before that squall tapers off into a wall of feedback, and Gordon kissing the whole thing off with a few lines. Scattered applause and yells follow from the scant audience left, making it seem like the band had just played a living room set in front of a few dozen people, and not a huge open space. It would be the only time they played J’accuse Ted Hughes.
The B-side track, Agnes B Musique, was written for the French fashion designer agnès b., well-known for her unorthodox approaches to marketing, which in the past have included both experimental film directors and noise musicians. A patient and endlessly beautiful composition, Agnes B Musique traipses into electric vastness, spacious, moody and immense. The band’s uncanny capacity for fusing doomy dissonance with prettiness that’s almost innocent, are all on fine display here. Cacophonous avant-gardist Jim O’Rourke provides mixing and some of the instrumentation for the track, and the two musical dissenter acts, known for subverting structural integrity of songs, mesh into an unshakeable whole.
Sonic Youth would release another SYR LP that same year, another long-from obelisk of almost even quality, this time a collaboration with Merzbow & Mats Gustafsson. That they were able to tap into such single-minded and far-reaching creativity that late into an already-remarkable career, tossing off these motley architectural woks as mere limited edition curios, is a truer testament than their studio closing act would prove to be.