Sonic Youth – A Thousand Leaves – Review

Sonic Youth

A Thousand Leaves (DGC)
by Nik Rainey 

AKA: The Discontinued Adventures of N. Rainey semi-hemi-demi-professional critic

One: This Side of Paradox

Tainted flecks of saliva pockmarked the mirror with every rounded consonant that exploded off my ragged palate. It seemed the words were just hanging there, dangling precariously from the frayed stalactites of flesh loosened from the roof of my mouth by years of overhot caffeinated beverages and scalding, spice-laden soups of arcane Middle Eastern origin that I, in my gnarled attempts at retaining whatever “danger” had existed in my life, would masochistically slurp as if to prove that at least some parts of my pasty, oddly-shaped body were still living on the chicken-playing, hookybobbing, cube-gleaming edge… all that brutality I visited upon my mouth, punishment, perhaps, for never being swift or agile enough to broadcast the barbed, sweetly venomous bon mots that traitorous organ to the north of it kept in cold, calculated storage only to be wheeled out freezer-burned and frost-bitten with none of its original flavor intact, or maybe as a sardonically literal-minded rebuke to/acknowledgement of my atrophied taste… it would stand to reason that the tools of my trade (which I have come to consider the trade of a tool) would catch and hang onto these scarified pieces of gum tissue, a gauntlet of worn-out, bald-treaded expressions that every halfway original and near-insightful thought that rises must pass through to arrive at its newsprint Shangri-La, a continent that couldn’t be called “lost” because few bothered to explore it to begin with before it was submersed in whatever deluge drowned it. And with my resources of bile crawling to record levels, it was only fitting that those words – those clichéd, ground-in words – would get caught in the riptide once the revulsed river finally spilled over its banks. The scowl that faced me arched into a virulent sneer as the floodgates, finally, broke:

“Aggro!” I shuddered with the force of its passing. A spasm so toe-splayingly convulsive I’d be tempted to call it orgasmic if a) it hadn’t left me feeling even more tense than before and b) I wasn’t afraid I was misusing the word. In the state I was in, even my orgasms weren’t particularly orgasmic anymore. My vision swam several laps and my kneecaps clacked like distended finger cymbals. I nearly accordion-folded against the wall behind me but was forced upright and rigid, an upstanding citizen for the first time, as the next eruption shot up my duodenum and burst forth, carrying my next word with it:

“Albinified!” Then they began firing faster and faster, a Glock-like torrent of terminology that sent me into a rigor-mortised state of perpetual recoil:

“Amphetamined! Bad-ass! Banal! Beatlesque! Blues/punk hybrid! Breakbeats! Careening! Career-defining! Cocktail-pop! Comeback album! Controversial! Courtney Love! Cover version better than the original! Cutting-edge!” On and on and on they came, syllabic saliva spattering across the reflective surface before me. “Darkwave! Deafening feedback! Death-rock! Dork-rock! Dreamscapes! Droning middle section! Dull throb at the base of my skull!” So lost was I in the rat-a-tat report of my mass verbal extermination that I was barely aware of a familiar presence lurking just beyond my peripheral vision, that overwhelming sense of self-satisfaction and the tangible smirk that accompanied it.

“Need I ask what exactly you’re doing?” it calmly inquired, leaning against the wall at a brilliantly-executed 45-degree angle of perfect nonchalance.

I tried to play off my surprise and respond in kind, but as you surely know, it’s hard to feign insouciance when you’re knotted up like the product of a heat-crazed pretzel vendor with balloon-folder delusions. (Or perhaps you don’t.) “You should know – Eclectic!– you’re one of my pseud – Ethereal!-onyms.”

“Yes, yes. It’s quite obvious you’re forcibly expelling all of your overused rock-critic words and phrases in alphabetical order. Organized even in your catharsis, I like that. No, I suppose the more pertinent query is ‘Why?'”

“I’m having – Ephemeral!– a crisis of – Eponymous!– faith.”

“What, is it the 15th already?”

“Laugh all you – Epidural!– want, but this is – Episiotomy!– serious.”

“Wait just one lukewarm minute there, Nikola. Not only were those last two words out of sequence, but since when were they typical rock-journo terms?”

“Ever since my unpublished review of the Lilith Fair last year. I’d rather not dwell on the – Essential purchase!– details. Existentialist tropes!

“He gingerly grabbed me by the esophagus and lowered his voice to a soothing hiss. “I’d drop the litany right there if I were you. You get into all the variations for ‘fuck’ you know and we’ll be here all night.” He carried me over to the nearest chair and dropped me in it. “Have a seat.” He produced a pack of Asymmetrical Lump 100s. “Cigarette?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s what it is.”

“Good. Looks like your cognitive functions are still working, unlike you. Now tell me – what’s the problem this time? Gremlins in your hard drive again?”

“Keep my personal life out of this. I… I don’t know. I’ve got this architecturally unsound stack of CDs assigned to me, deadline’s hanging over me like a dangling participle, and, try as I may… I’m having a hard time believing in this whole scam.”

“Well, that’s part of the bargain, isn’t it? Don’t critics have a mandate to be cynical, hard-bitten…” He looked me up and down. “…dressed in clothes the homeless would laugh at?”

“I guess so, sure, but the question occurs to me: Who am I speaking for? I mean, okay, the thought that rock scribes’ tastes are somehow representative of the average consumer – I got over that flimsy fallacy long ago. Rock music is by and large a pre-literate, adolescent art form and rock criticism is the worst thing that could have happened to it, injecting a large dose of self-consciousness into something whose ultimate goal is to achieve unconsciousness. I can live with the fact that it’s people like me who’re responsible for the existence of rock operas, concept albums, billionaire jagoffs stealing pieces of native cultures and repackaging them for suburban consumption, guys whose major claim to distinction is finding just the right vegetable to augment their denim tourniquets making sympathetic proclamations about the same oppressed and downtrodden people they pay their roadies to keep 500 feet away from them at all times unless they happen to have traded in their food stamps for peroxide and silicone and have an abnormally large mouth, Stephen Malkmus’ annotated lyric sheets…”

“As your nom de plume du jour, I advise you to take it down a peg.”

“This is what I’m talking about. I can live with the fact that we’ve added a completely inappropriate glaze of pseudo-intellectualism on a once-lively means of expression, I can even accept the fact that the works of a talented and insightful few have given license to all manner of cheapjack pundits who spend far too much time trying to build schools of thought out of bricks of mindlessness, and I guess it was inevitable that a small group of frustrated, skinny-wristed, elitist nancyboys would have driven a wedge through something that began as an egalitarian movement and cordoned off a section of it that’s all pure, half-witted ideological snobbery…”

“Good lord, you think too much. I mean, I’m you and even I’m not entirely sure what you’re prattling on about. The music snobs have ruined it for everybody, is that what you’re trying to say? Well, so frugging what? The only people that care are other music snobs and maybe the members of the bands you look down on, but even that doesn’t matter because a) the most you’re likely to get in response is a Crayola-smeared death threat on an old bar napkin or maybe an e-mail written by someone who hasn’t mastered the complexities of the shift key and b) the vast majority of them don’t give a shit what a writer has to say. They’ve got the money, the booze, the drugs and the pussy, while you’ve got pale skin, trembling hands and chronic upper-back pain from being hunched over your keyboard in ‘heavy’ contemplation. The only time the twain ever meets is when your ex-rock critics – your Patti Smiths, your Chrissie Hyndes, your Neil Tennants – decide to take up their guitars and walk away from the typewriters and onto center stage. And do you think even they bother to read their own press? Believe me, they know better. So screw your guilt, but for God’s sakes wear a condom ’cause who knows where it’s been? You’ve got your insular little community and your bands that shift 200 non-promo copies of their CDs and your thinkpieces that about a twentieth of that number will ever read – live with it. Congratulate yourselves on your ‘selective appeal.’ The real community’s out there and trust me, they’re not paying attention.”

“Oh, I don’t mind that.”


“If I truly minded being part of an elitist, masturbatory subculture, I wouldn’t’ve bothered to learn to read in the first place. My problem is, what happens when you start doubting your qualifications for membership there? When the very thing you’ve built an elaborate belief system to support – the only thing you believed in for as long as you can remember – starts failing on you? What then?”

My alter-egomaniac suddenly stopped smirking. Not only that, but his half-lidded gaze widened and hardened into something a little more familiar: bewildered, stunned, frightened by a mere glimpse of the abyss. Good. Now maybe I can relate to the bastard. Finally, slowly, he drawled, “Yeah… what… then?” With the aid of smelling salts and a piece of braised trout I keep with me for just such an emergency, I brought him back just far enough to provide a little narrative thrust. “Okay. Examples. We need to dee-lin-ee-ate the problem before we can brew up the solution.”

“Okay. This is when it hit me. You see this new Jesus and Mary Chain record, Munki (SubPop)? Pretty standard Velveteen Underground fare, you know, just what you’d expect from these Scotch eggs… drone-feedback-disco-acoustic-blah-blah-blah. They’ve studied all the greasy, decadent underground rock moves and present them as if doing a doctoral thesis on them. Truth is, I’ve always loved them, mostly because of their extreme dispassion – they’ve played what amounts to the exact same song for thirteen years or so and they don’t bother to hide it, just letting all their influences mill around visibly in half-digested form. Listening to a JAMC album is like watching a food processor with a blade missing, and depending on how agitated they feel, like listening to one, too.”

Pseudonik was beginning to warm back up enough to cough out some rudimentary witticisms. “You’ve gotta love a band so impassive even in their sacrilege. Even their blasphemy’s more like blasé-phemy.”

“Right and double-right. But get this – they pull one of their favorite moves on this album, whereby the first and last songs are somehow connected. See, most of the ‘classic’ rock records of our age either begin and end with variations on the same theme, are far too long – one day I hope to teach the youth of this country about the ‘double album,’ though I doubt they’ll ever believe me – or both, and the Reid brothers have internalized this as stalwartly as they’ve internalized the infinite number of applications of the ‘Be My Baby’ drum tattoo, kind of the ‘Funky Drummer’ for white people with bad hair…”

“Get to the point.”

“All right. The first song on the album is ‘I Love Rock and Roll.’ The last song is ‘I Hate Rock and Roll.’ Now beyond the fact that this proves that these guys are far too uptight to ever use contractions, it occured to me that even they– the very models of dispassion – will never, ever write a song entitled ‘I Am Decidedly Ambivalent About Rock and Roll,’ then I can’t say that I’m speaking for anyone in this field, nor is anyone in contemporary music speaking for me. Somewhere along the way, I had lost the plot. And that was merely the opening wedge.”

For several moments, my doppelganger said not a word, merely stood contemplatively (now leaning at a 30-degree angle of buckled-kneed nonplussitude) and took several long drags from his cigarette. “Aren’t you gonna light that?” I asked. He said nothing. I wondered if (continued next paragraph)

(continued from previous paragraph) maybe breaking a sentence in half would startle him out of his reverie, but it did no good. He was practically catatonic, which ordinarily wouldn’t bother me but he’s the one with the car keys. I, on the other hand, was at least making some progress, articulating my malaise rather than wasting my time writing long, convoluted one-sentence paragraphs with too many parentheses (an addiction of mine that served as an equally insidious replacement for recreational drugs) for some music magazine. I weighed my options. Three pounds, six ounces. Obviously I needed to exercise my right to pontificate about the insignificant some more, subject myself to a full farcicalisthenic workout, regardless of how it affected my schizononymous friend. At least it might keep me from making up compound words for a few minutes.

I swiped the disc off the top tier of my Leaning Tower of Babble and held it aloft, as if to begin the Rock Olympiad by bearing the torch (which , of course, resembles an enormous lighter). “Sonic Youth,” I intoned. “The edifice upon which much of the significant musical graffiti of the last two decades has been sprayed. To be admitted into the pantheon of pulp-puling promo-pushers, one is obligated to enter into their spires and genuflect before their kitsch-strewn altar. Bow and scrape in front of their bowed and scraped guitars and you shall be anointed with the oils of their patronage. Gaze, ye seekers, upon the disheveled flock which they have shepherded into the Promised Land. How they took a shrill trollop out of her tattered baby-doll raiments and sent her on the self-righteous path leading to the glittering city of Golden Globe nominations, rhinoplasty, and ten-page Versace photo spreads in The New Yorker. How they plucked a wandering troubadour from his bus-line buskings and raised him on high to throw things around on 120 Minutes, and yea, shall he speak in tongues and misspell Mexican words and sample Van Morrison until thou willst know he be the Dylan of slack. And lo, indeed how they baptized the scoliotic Messiah himself that he might mumble his sermons on the mount that Geffen built and turn water into whine and whine into multi-platinum and feed the multitudes on loathes and fishes and yea, he will say ’tis okay for they don’t have any feelings, until his stomach-lining will be as fire and his arm veins will be as potholes and he will suffer under Steve Albini and wear a crown of hypodermic needles and carry a twenty-gauge crucifix on his back and we will buckle under the weight of conspiracy theories and posthumous rarities compilations until we stop caring anymore, oh well, whatever, amen.”

“Hey,” my split-personage said with gruel-gobbed diction, “I thought you were talking about Sonic Youth.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I’ve been watching too many Tag-Team Wrestling With Salvation specials on Pray-Per-View. But my point is there. You’re obligated to respect Sonic Youth, especially if you’re a critic – hell, even Robert Christgau, who they put on the extermination list in ‘Kill Yr Idols’ way back when, now unflinchingly interviews the band about their kids for Rolling Stone. And I’ll be the last one to say they aren’t some of the prime musical innovators of our time or question their generosity to up-and-comers and the nearly forgotten. But something changed in these guys a while ago, and it took nearly a decade for the scales to fall from my eyes -”

“Is that why it smells like fish in here?”

“Shut up, I’m rolling – and own up to it. Their trajectory through the eighties was quite exciting to behold. They tore apart the skeleton of rock, put it back together their way, then let nature take its course and slowly reconstruct it into a familiar form. You remember ‘Expressway to Yr Skull,’ don’t you?”

“Boy, they do like their Byron Coley-inspired contractions, don’t they?”

“I’m starting to think I liked you better when you were in a vertical coma… that song still takes my breath away a dozen years later. The sing-songy pop opening into the best pregnant pause since ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’ or ‘Good Vibrations’ into that sustained explosion which arcs up, up, up, up… then starts to drift languidly back to earth, coming apart into discrete pieces which flake and drift away before it’s left rotating in mid-descent on an endless lock-grooved loop as startling as the film catching in the projector and melting at the end of Two-Lane Blacktop – that song has it all. The only problem is, they never really had anything to follow it up with. But Sonic Youth were smart and they knew what they had to do – wait two albums, then put out a double album with the word ‘nation’ in the title, and the critics, naturally, threw palm fronds at their feet, called it a ‘masterpiece,’ and installed them as the elder statespeople of post-punk. So, really, they had no choice after that – they had to go to a major label, had to do weird conceptual jokes like getting Chuck D in for a guest shot and not letting him rap, and had to start segregating their projects into ‘serious art’ and ‘fucking around’ sections. And the strange thing is – although maybe it’s not so strange – the tossed-off, first-take, ‘fucking around’ stuff is a hell of a lot more fun to listen to.”

“Yeah. Art sucks.”

“Well spake. Except now they hadda go and screw that up by putting out those three instrumental-jam EPs which are both ‘serious art’ and ‘fucking around’ at the same time! Ended up killing all the creative tension that gooses their music, which brings us to A Thousand Leaves (DGC), which sounds like an improv record that was meticulously rehearsed beforehand. Other than that all-feedback and speaker hiss number at the beginning, the record sounds fine: every dovetailing clang of Thurston and Lee’s guitars has a stately, metallic beauty, motherhood and hanging out with Julia Cafritz appears to be turning Kim into a human being vocally, and Steve Shelley – well, Steve Shelley drums. Like he’s been known to do. But it’s so linear and so drawn-out and I’ll be damned if I can remember a single tune on the thing other than the single. I’d be tempted to call them the Grateful Dead for hipsters, especially since they dedicated one song to Allen Ginsberg and titled it (gag) ‘Hits of Sunshine,’ but let’s be honest, nobody’s following these guys around the country in minivans and swaying in a hallucinogenic haze to their 45-minute version of ‘The Diamond Sea.’ Sonic Youth’s crowd is far too cerebral and detached for that. So another critical touchstone gets dislodged, for now at least. Any questions?”

For some reason, he raised his hand. “Yeah – what’s the title mean?”

“Good question. Actually, it’s the end of a truism that was coined on their tour opening for Neil Young and became part of the alterna-vernacular when they ‘headlined’ Lollapalooza ’95.”

“How does it go?”

“It starts, ‘For every undergrad record collector in the crowd who sticks around to watch Sonic Youth play…'”

“Let’s, um, let’s.. go for a little walk, shall we?”

Two: The Name and Home Phone Number of the Rose

“Writing can be such a debilitating activity sometimes,” my pseudonym stated, taking in a lungful of fresh, newly-imported Chasm Heights air. “A little exercise might do you some good.”

“Sure, I can accept that,” I said, “but, um, why the manacles?”

“Oh, those. They… help build up the ankles and forearms, which is crucial for when you have your next wall-kicking, phone-smashing fit. Now, you were talking about…”

“The new Pulp album, This is Hardcore (Island). On the surface, they should rightly be one of my favorite bands. They’re poppy without being overly derivative, literate without being pretentious, Jarvis Cocker has that sexy-nerd thing happening like no British musician has in years…”

“Yes, I have a theory about that. As you know, they’ve been around for over a decade, but they’ve only been good for about three years or so. Well, several of my streetwise acquaintances overseas – well, they’re Englishmen, so I suppose they’re more cobblestone-pathwise, but anyway, they have it on good authority that, in 1985, Elvis Costello underwent a lengthy and painful image modification program after the abject failure of Goodbye Cruel World. A key part of the procedure, which included reverting to his given name, applying for a government grant to develop a beard, and having all memory of having collaborated with Daryl Hall surgically erased, was the simplest but perhaps most radical of them all – the casting off of his trademark horn-rim glasses, which he sold to a street vendor in exchange for $.50 and the real words to ‘Louie. Louie.’ It did the trick, but in the worst possible way – it stripped him of his powers of melody and charisma, powers he’s been struggling to regain ever since. Rumors flew about the source of his sudden loss of potency, but it was pretty clear to those in the know that it was the loss of his spectacles that caused it. Okay, say something so I can break this up into paragraphs.”

“Wh -? Oh…” I looked at the index card he produced from his pocket. “‘But… how do… you’ – maybe you should consider typing this next time – ‘ how do you know that?'”

“A fair question, albeit somewhat woodily posed. Because, not six months later, a lad from the North of England named Stephen Morrissey, himself smarting from the stony reception accorded his recent collection of dreary bedsit anthems about suicide, child abuse and why it’s not nice to murder cows, had arrived in London, hoping to take his mind off things by finding someone to not have sex with, when he chanced upon these self-same specs. Though not suffering from any optical problems, he bought the glasses anyway – at, I may add, a rather ridiculous markup. The savvy vendor claimed they belonged to Oscar Wilde and used as part of a controversial court order in a small jurisdiction where the judge believed that homosexuality was a rare form of eyestrain. Gullible, he purchased them, began wearing them in public, and within weeks, had gained a miraculous sense of humor and stage presence which led him to write all the lyrics to The Queen Is Dead in a matter of hours.” He paused.

“Hm? Oh, sorry… ‘But… wet – what – does that hat – have to do with Pulp?’ Um, can we take that again?”

“Forget it, no time. Well, Morrissey, as he liked to call himself, got the glasses knocked off his head during a concert in Leeds when a crazed militant pacifist in the audience flung a handful of orchids at the singer a bit too swiftly, an accident that also tragically knocked his hair off-balance. In the resulting melée, they were lost, only to be discovered after the show by a skinny pipe-fitter’s assistant with a struggling pop band of his own.”

“And that was Jarvis Cocker, who then went on to write such inspired bits of vicious whimsy as ‘Sorted For E’s and Wizz’ and ‘Common People,’ thereby becoming Britain’s latest unlikely sex symbol?”

“No. But he has a pair just like it. Anyway, you were saying?”

“Just that I thought that Pulp was rapidly growing into one of my favorite bands, and their lead singer one of the more interesting figures in music. I mean, can you not love a guy who comes up with an album title designed to piss off fans of pornography and punk rock? Or a man who starts a song with the line, ‘I’m not Jesus, but I have the same initials’?”

“I understand it was originally supposed to be John Cleese, but that was thought to be blasphemous.”

“Thank you. Shut up. And since much of my own personal crisis hinged on my growing alienation from youth and youth culture – you’ll notice that the pants I’m wearing fit – the fact that much of the album deals with the topic of aging, subject matter only slightly less popular in rock music than genital herpes, and does so in a compassionate and noncondescending manner, and as unironically as anyone is allowed to be at this late date, they came very, very close to becoming my heroes just when I thought I had none left.”

“So,” he said, stifling a yawn, a sneeze and a belch simultaneously (a talent for which he’d won a Presidential Citation), “what ruined it for you?”

“Oddly enough, it was the catchiest song on the album. ‘Help the Aged.’ I was deeply enamored of its sweep, its wit, and above all its tune. I walked around for days humming it to myself, with the nagging feeling that I’d heard it somewhere before. I went around like that for three or four days, neglecting my work, refusing all solids, deep in contemplation… then it came to me: they stole the tune from ‘Vincent.’ You remember, the mawkish van Gogh tribute that followed ‘American Pie?’ That in itself wouldn’t have disturbed me so much if I hadn’t just heard a tune on the latest Suede CD that made reference to that very song. That tore it: I haven’t been able to bring myself to listen to it since. Seventies retro is one thing, but a full-blown Don McLean revival amongst Brit-poppers? For that I cannot stand.”

“There are some things even an enchanted pair of horn-rims can’t cure, I guess.” He stopped walking. “Here we are.”

“What’s this? Where the hell are we?”

“Merely one of the nation’s leading experts on rock-critical care. I just thought you could use a little professional guidance in your hour of need. Of course, this being an analyst, you’ll have to make sure your hour of need lasts no longer than 50 minutes.” He opened the double glass doors of the lobby and gave me a gentle, brotherly shove. “Go on in; I’ll be right back.” With that, he proceeded to bolt out the door, dart through noonday traffic with the stealth and grace of Jerry Lewis after a bottle of ephedrine, leap through the window of the nearest cab, and squeal away in the direction of the Liquor and Peacock Feather District. A more superstitious man than I would have taken that as a bad sign.

To be continued…