At its purest, rock & roll is an overheating cauldron of rage and lust and hostility and tenderness and humor and love and sorrow and regret and sarcasm—a Reader’s Digest version of life, if you will. Unfortunately, anyone looking for said combination on most of the robotic pop records released nowadays will have an easier time finding an iota of spontaneity on the latest Def Leppard album. For that reason alone, we should all fall down on our hands and knees and kiss the CD jewel box of Sonic Youth’s Dirty (DGC), possibly the finest hour (59 minutes, actually) from this New York noise & roll band. It is also much-needed proof that the old-fangled concept of a rock guitar band can still result in vital, undeniably moving music.
First, a caveat: There is probably no way to make Dirty sound even remotely pretty or appetizing to those new to the ways of Sonic Youth. Much like the bulk of its previous work, the music is raw and bristling. You know those moments when you’re listening to the radio and you accidentally hit the tuning knob and out comes this irritating, if hypnotic, mix of brutalizing feedback buzz and the rhythm of a pop song? Dirty sounds much like that. And the songs depict a world in which everything — the arts community, close friendships, the role of women in the workplace — is going to hell, or is already there.
Setting harsh sentiments to equally unsettling music has been Sonic Youth’s modus operandi since the band formed in the early ’80s, especially on albums like 1988’s Daydream Nation and 1990’s uncompromising major-label debut, Goo. Bratty downtowners that they are, though, Sonic Youth has also been cheeky on record, indulging itself in noise for noise’s sake and hip in-jokes. Dirty, in contrast, is not only musically sharper (thanks to producer Butch Vig, who helmed Nirvana’s Nevermind), but also more emotionally expressive.
Unbridled rage and musical hurricanes are still on the menu—from the swipes at Clarence Thomas in the whirlwind rant ”Youth Against Fascism” to the way bassist Kim Gordon works her voice from a deathly whisper into a howling grimace in ”Shoot.” At moments like that (or on the revved-up ”Chapel Hill”), the guitars of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo coil, unleash, and throw themselves around the melodies like octopus tentacles. Yet there are subtler moments, like ”JC,” a recited eulogy to a friend gunned down in a mugging, or the languid, dreamlike ”Theresa’s Sound-world.” There, the band sends out gorgeous ripples of feedback that don’t detract from either the songs or the complex emotions.
Dirty is somber and introspective, but it’s much more than that. There comes a time in life when you have to face the music-a time to stop hiding behind masks and attitudes and admit how confused and confusing the world can be and how it truly affects you. And often that risk-called maturity, for want of a better word-pays off and transports you to another level. Beyond its musical advances, that is what Dirty is all about. At this point, every other rock & roll album that visits our planet this year will have a hard time topping it.