With each successive release by its former members, the news is sinking in deeper and deeper that we’re likely never going to see Sonic Youth play together again. Yes, the members of the iconic New York band have released an exhaustive catalog of solo material. As fine as those were, we always knew they would truly soar once they linked together again.
Now that that connection has been severed, we’re left to pick at these new shards wondering how these individual pieces could possibly connect to make a Daydream Nation or a Murray Street. With Body/Head and Chelsea Light Moving, we can see the connections. With Lee Ranaldo’s latest solo effort, it’s not so easy.
The songs on Last Night on Earth feel like they are approaching the world heart first, a sentiment you could never express about a Sonic Youth album. It’s because this album feels free of the internal tension that Ranaldo and Thurston Moore could stir up together. It could be because he conceived of these songs initially on acoustic guitar, but credit must be shared with his co-guitarist here, Alan Licht.
A longtime friend and cohort of Ranaldo’s, Licht brings the same loose-limbed psychedelic energy that made his work with Run On so enticing. His ringing chords on “Ambulancer” keep Ranaldo’s passionate lyrics of watching a loved one pass away connected to earth, and his syrupy leads feel like the soul soaring that we associated with death. Earlier on the album, Licht finds ways to leap out of the dense wall of multi-tracked guitar lines and Steve Shelley’s busy yet sturdy drumming with some, cutting a vein of ice through the otherwise heated “The Rising Tide.”
The loose, free spirit of Last Night is to be expected considering how quickly the songs were written and recorded (his previous solo effort Between The Times and The Tides was released just last year). And for the most part, it suits Ranaldo. His lyrics are far more discursive and poetic, and grapple more strongly with existential issues. Musically, it can make for inspired moments like the wowing extended coda of “Blackt Out” or the Grateful Dead-like “Key-Hole.” Just as quickly, though, things can go sour. Strange touches like a harpsichord or unnecessarily swift tempo changes rattle uncomfortably throughout, leaching out what goodwill it had been building up.
Of course, Ranaldo really set the table for this move into more open-armed territory with Between The Times. This album was never going to have the same punch as, say, “Mote” or “Eric’s Trip.” He is getting older after all, and likely less interested in making statement songs. If other aging musicians are any indication, this is the time (age 57) when he’s supposed to throw any ol’ idea against the wall whether it sticks or not. He manages to make the majority of them adhere. That in and of itself is an achievement worth applauding, even when Last Night lets you down.