It’s amusing to think that the fiercely freaky Sonic Youth were a major-label act for nearly 20 years. The Eternal marks their literal return to indie rock —and that’s no big whoop, since they’ve always done pretty much what they want anyway. The irony is that The Eternal might be their most concise record ever. It’s also a rock & roll ass-kicker.
The Eternal sums up almost everything this band has done over three decades, punk sneers and psychedelic guitars pimping a proudly pretentious belief in rock as art. “Press up against the amp/Turn up the treble!” growls Kim Gordon on “Sacred Trickster,” a gender-fuck metarocker that’s the band’s noisiest album opener since “100%,” on 1992’s Dirty. “Anti-Orgasm” works similar turf, Gordon and hubby Thurston Moore chanting about free love amid athletic guitar intercourse. There’s more vocal collaboration than usual, and ex-Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, the group’s new fifth member, helps motor some unusually strong grooves. Otherwise it’s biz as usual, just tighter: trippy Moore jams, Lee Ranaldo sleepers, a Gordon meditation on sexualized fame (with the cheeky Britney shout-out “a tough cross to bear/Oops, no underwear!”).
But after years of hard touring —including the recent Daydream Nation shows, a clear influence here —the band seems legacy-minded. “Poison Arrow” flaunts a fine Lou Reed impression and New York Dolls-style riffs, with some no-wave noise melody and a minimalist outro —a collage of the group’s New York-rock tradition. And on the nine-minute finale, Sonic Youth curl up in bed in a fuzzy psych-folk blanket, with Gordon hoarsely whispering, “Let’s massage history.” They still are, and it feels real good.