Inspired by everything from the MC5 to Yves Klein, from activists to poets, from Canterbury to at least one celebrity vagina, The Eternal is Sonic Youth’s 16th album, and its first for big-indie imprint Matador. Forcing together these seemingly disparate influences and others, many of which are dead or dying, the NYC rock veterans end up pondering things you might expect a band forging into its 29th year to ponder. Life. Death. Identity. Sexism. Big Picture type things. To paraphrase a certain fictional record-store owner: the “what-does-it-all-mean?” questions. And the members of Sonic Youth are secure enough to admit they don’t have all the answers—moreover, that maybe having all the answers isn’t the point.
“I want you to levitate me,” bassist Kim Gordon demands at the start of punkish opener “Sacred Trickster,” perhaps desiring transcendence beyond those who—be they boneheaded journalists, well-meaning fans or worse—ask “quaint” questions like the one she sing-shouts a minute later in the same song: “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?!” The track thrashes to a close barely past the two-minute mark. It’s one of The Eternal’s best, and also one of its most conflicted.
Elsewhere, “Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)” draws inspiration from the deceased New York beat poet and his poem “Leaky Lifeboat Boys,” comparing life on this planet to a vessel with a hole in it. With myriad references to a loss of control, describing a boat that’s both “slippin’ sidewise” and “sailin’ backwards,” Gordon and guitarist Thurston Moore lay out a self-help manual of sorts. Lighten up and the answers will come to you, they seem to say, acquiescing into a lovely bridge filled with la la las.
But lest you think Sonic Youth is naive enough to assume life’s Big Answers can be found without confrontation or resistance, on “What We Know,” guitarist Lee Ranaldo rages, “I’m in a state of shock, I’m creepin’ up and down your block … It’s not a quiet meditation ... the darkness makes the night more cold.” Taken out of context, these lyrics sound like angsty diary entries, but paired with stabbing, low-register riffage and an ominous, swaggering bass line, it’s clear that they’re words of reckoning. It doesn’t matter what the narrator is trying to cope with; the listener can relate. Helplessness is universal.
The Eternal’s cover is a painting by renowned experimental guitarist John Fahey, who passed away in 2001, and whose arguably best-known work is The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death. Framed by two black bars, as if projected onto the silver screen, the work depicts a swirling red mass that looks like a hurricane or some sort of abyss. Its colors recall blood, violence; its shape is primitive, raw. It is unapologetic, but comforting in a way.
There’s a sense of longing and desperation throughout The Eternal’s dozen meditations, a sense that not all is right and maybe never will be. These songs aren’t purely doom and gloom; they’re not tons of fun either, but hope and curiosity abound, even if they’re not easy to spot on first listen. The bottom line is that the members of Sonic Youth are human, and they go through the same emotions all humans do, paralyzing doubt appearing in equal measure alongside uplifting success. And much like the humans they’re inspired by, from Fahey stretching the boundaries of the guitar to the MC5 kicking out the jams, they’re fearless in their exploration of what it is to be human. At the end of the day, that’s about the most comforting sentiment you can ask for from a rock ’n’ roll record.