In 2002, the Village Voice reviewed Murray Street, the spiraling-and-shrieking best work in seven years by former Manhattan fixture Sonic Youth. Critic Amy Phillips didn't like the record very much, dismissing it with an apparent shrug: "The new album isn't terrible, just dull."
Sure, Murray Street lacked the tense bursts that helped the band land hits with a major label, and more than a decade after the string of albums typically regarded as their masterworks, Sonic Youth's particular mix of squall-and-surge certainly felt less revelatory than it did before fleets of proselytes copped the style. But Phillips didn't stop with not liking the new tunes or Jim O'Rourke's new tones as producer and guitarist. Instead, she called for one of her favorite bands ever to call it quits: "You have summer houses in Western Massachusetts. You opened for Pearl Jam. ... Sonic Youth, please break up."
Phillips wasn't the first person to suggest this, of course. As the critic, collector and chronicler Byron Coley suggested in a published letter to the Voice, Phillips' review felt like a retread of the growing-up angst expressed four years earlier by Gina Arnold in a review of 1998's A Thousand Leaves. "The best is definitely behind Sonic Youth," she had concluded, "and what lies ahead is no fun to contemplate—much less to listen to."
But Sonic Youth didn't flag following Phillips' very public suggestion. Since Murray Street, they released three full-length albums, issuing one about every two years. That doesn't include a handful of live releases, scores and commemorative box sets, but those new albums do include some of their most stunning songs. The luxuriating "Antenna," the scorching "Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream," the earworming "Incinerate": All offered positive proof that Sonic Youth wasn't done.
Last October, then, the big news one might have expected from the Sonic Youth camp was the follow-up to 2009's ruefully named The Eternal. Instead, nine years after Phillips asked for it, Sonic Youth ostensibly broke up (or at least put their future on hold) with the announcement that, after 27 years of marriage, the perpetually young couple of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore had filed for divorce. A month later, guitarist Lee Ranaldo told Rolling Stone he was optimistic about the band's future—if only because "archival projects and things like that" tied the quartet together.
The future for new Sonic Youth music, at least, looks bleak.
Well, not really: One factor that seemingly sustained Sonic Youth for three decades is the individual strengths and interests of its members and their ability to funnel everything they did outside of the band back into the mother ship. Moore and Ranaldo, for instance, are prolific improvisers whose interests in outside sounds like harsh noise and fingerstyle guitars—and their ability to refine these within the context of Sonic Youth—proved pivotal assets for always sounding like more than a rock band. Gordon's had her share of such stuff, too, not to mention the incendiary output of her casual side-project Free Kitten, a band whose attitude was an extension of the grit and gumption Gordon afforded Sonic Youth. The group's hidden threat, Steve Shelley, is a terrifically proficient and flexible rock drummer with an enviable résumé. Outside of Sonic Youth, he's explored the same shifts between chaos and control he long managed with the band.
So maybe those who have long accused Sonic Youth of being too old (Moore is 53; Gordon, 58) were on to something when they urged the end, if for the wrong reasons. In the last year, Moore released two stellar albums—one an endearing tribute to late guitarist Jack Rose, the other an exquisite nine-song set for Matador called Demolished Thoughts. Built gently with acoustic guitars, harps and cradling percussion, Demolished Thoughts sighs with an impressionistic sort of sadness, its fragmented images floated by some of Moore's best singing ever. If Sonic Youth has to slow or go silent for more records like this, draw up the papers.
Meanwhile, Shelley has given the Chicago band Disappears a needed jolt, his bigger beats adding ballast to their bravado. Gordon has a new project with guitarist Bill Nace (who recently had a new project with her ex-husband), and Ranaldo has at least two fresh albums in the works that key alternately on his interests in tidal drone, acoustic elegance and slanted rock melodies.
Yes, maybe Sonic Youth is finally dead. The reasons they were special to begin with, though, have fortunately refused to recognize any such expiration date.