One of the great pleasures of following Sonic Youth comes from balancing the weight of its history and impact against the beauty of its ongoing metamorphosis.
The band's latest release, The Eternal, divines those elements with surgical precision. Its cover artwork is a 1998 painting by late avant-garde fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey, while its contents are dedicated to recently deceased Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. It nods to beat poet Gregory Corso on its third track, "Leaky Lifeboat," while invoking one of the many aliases of Jan Paul Beahm (aka deceased Germs singer Darby Crash) on "Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn."
Along with the eighth installment of the band's experimental music series, Andre Sider af Sonic Youth (Another Side of Sonic Youth), which came out a year ago this week, The Eternal is the latest in a series of correctives that 53-year-old guitarist and co-founder Lee Ranaldo says has kept the band relevant since 1981.
"We're constantly evolving, and I think, for us, that's the most interesting thing — trying to stay on the tip of that evolution," says Ranaldo. "It's always cool to have current stuff inspire you instead of being stuck in the past — sort of a MOJO magazine syndrome."
There's no one correct way to appreciate Ranaldo, Thurston Moore, Kim Gordon and, to a lesser extent, Steve Shelley. A portion of the band's following clearly views 1988's seminal Daydream Nation, 1990's eminently accessible Goo, 1994's poppier Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and 1995's tangentially commercial Washing Machine as powerful totems — leading them to seek out "Kool Thing," "Teen Age Riot" or "The Diamond Sea" on trendy dive-bar jukeboxes. Others lean toward the band's noise-laden experimental albums — dreaming that Moore will solo with a drill immersed in a box of sawdust at some point in the next live set.
Ranaldo sees all these facets fitting cozily under the same tent. The world around him may have grown more compartmentalized and fractious, but the accessible rock that Sonic Youth plays at Bonnaroo and the edgy artwork the band displays in its "Sensational Fix" museum shows in Germany, Sweden and Spain are definitely fused in the minds of their creators.
"I think there's a bit more of a dichotomy, but for us the connection is very much there," Ranaldo says. "To us, the two are still very much a part of each other."
This unified view of art and music may be the one element that dates Sonic Youth. It's almost a relic of New York's late-'70s, early '80s music scene, birthed by Andy Warhol and nurtured by artists as diverse as John Cage, Lou Reed, Glenn Branca, Debbie Harry and Fab 5 Freddy.
Ranaldo is fond of saying that if you didn't live through the scene that long since evaporated among the billboards and luxury condos of modern Manhattan, you missed it. But fans listening to The Eternal and those who continue to draw inspiration from Sonic Youth haven't missed a thing.
"We had so many aspirations when we started out," he says, "and not many of our contemporaries were able to realize their aspirations."