Because most people have settled on Daydream Nation as their favorite Sonic Youth album, the more interesting question would be “What is your second favorite Sonic Youth album?” My answer’s Goo.
After the there’s-not-enough-positive-adjectives-in-the-world-to-describe-this-ness of Daydream Nation, they’ve finally made it to the big leagues; getting signed onto a major record label (though Geffen would give them the shaft and stick them on the newly formed sub-label DGC) and being given a big cheque for $150,000 to make this record. So what’s different?
To be honest, not much. For all the talk of Goo as Sonic Youth’s most accessible record, it’s a testament to the fact that the concept of “accessibility” is clearly relative. Personally, I think there’s a lot of pigeonholing in that statement. Sure, from the opening stretch of four tracks, we could describe it as such, but as soon as Lee Ranaldo’s “Mote” comes around with its extended noisy outro, all notions of accessibility is thrown out the window. Goo is about as accessible as Daydream Nation was, a matrimony of the melody and noise they spent a decade perfecting, and it’s certainly less accessible than Dirty to come. Now, as opposed to my review of Daydream Nation or late-90’s Sonic Youth albums, there are no observations I can make to link the music of Goo with the dullness and doodads of domestic life (though there are some moments to be sure, like how the radio-surfing intro of “Mote” and the driving-down-the-highway-at-above-the-speed-limit “Scooter + Jinx” both suggest getting out of the suburbs), obvious from the relatively straight-forward punk of “Mary-Christ” or “My Friend Goo.” It’s not an issue though, because Goo is short for Good Music, and that’s precisely what it is. In fact, I’d gladly champion this as one of the best albums of 1990, a year that seemed to be mostly for leftovers from the 80’s especially when compared to 1991, which had new ideas (the breakthrough of alternative rock, trip-hop, ambient house, seminal post-rock, the re-emergence of the West Coast, getting the rock and dance kids together, etc.) and the unofficial start of the new decade.
There are minor differences, to be sure. For one, opener “Dirty Boots” is as close as Sonic Youth have gotten to a straight-forward rocker at this point, taking the energy of “(I Got A) Catholic Block” and the sexuality of “Silver Rocket” (“Everything is six-sex-six by luck,” “Dreaming in a crack,” etc.) but replacing the noise breakdown from either with a good old-fashioned climax (“I GOT SOME DIRTY BOOTS, BABYYYYY / DIRTY BOOTS! HEY!) instead. And since the term “straight-forward” might carry negative connotations, I’ll reiterate: “Dirty Boots” gets added to the list of amazing Sonic Youth openers, up there with “Teenage Riot” and “Schizophrenia.” The more obvious change can be heard on “Kool Thing.” Whereas indie label Sonic Youth only enlisted the help from other indie heroes like Lydia Lunch and Mike D., they bring in Chuck D from Public Enemy (!!!). And while others will tell you that his contributions are mostly worthless; the typical hip-hop-isms of “Ye!” “Tell it like it is!” “Worrrrrrrd up!”, I personally find his presence to be a nice touch, saving “Kool Thing” from potentially being just another Kim Gordon feminism track (with a very badass riff and hook, the latter being a reference to LL Cool J), and lets her drop an Easter Egg and powerful line like “Fear of a female planet.”
In between these more well-known songs (I’m not sure they really qualify as hits, despite the fact that they were singles, had music videos and one of them found its way on Guitar Hero 3 alongside other unknown tracks like Foghat’s “Slow Ride” and Metallica’s “One”) are two more of the album’s gems. I’ve already briefly mentioned “Mary-Christ” as “relatively straight-forward punk,” but that’s doing it an injustice. Thurston demonstrates that he’s able to pull together a tune despite how fast he runs through the words (“Says I hope you like / Hope I hope you like like like you hope that I explode”), something he wouldn’t have been able to have done a decade ago. Meanwhile, the part to watch out for is Steve Shelley’s drumfill (at the 1:38 mark) that bridges an angular guitar attack and the descending riff that leads/crashes us back into the verse. Meanwhile, “Tunic (Song for Karen)” has the band perfecting soundscapes for nightmarish realms, the guitars a cacophonous symphony under Kim Gordon’s half-sung/half-spoken vocals, before briefly materializing into a menacing riff for the chorus, “She said: ‘You are never going anywhere / You are never going anywhere’ / I ain’t never going anywhere / I ain’t never going anywhere.” Listen closely to the instrumental section after Gordon’s “And I remember mom, what you said / You said honey – you look so under-fed” (one of the best uses of a dramatic pause in music). The guitars begin descending to hell before spiralling out of control, and if you turn it up loudly enough, you’ll hear the incoherent ramblings of all those trapped there, reaching up to grab you.
Unfortunately, the second half of the album doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the opening stretch of tracks (barring one “Disappearer”). It also has some rather useless bits, I’m guessing to juxtapose with the longer tracks that they’re sandwiched between. I had originally described “Mildred Pierce” as ugly, and while I’ve warmed up to it, I realize there’s no real point. The same goes for the other minute-long interlude, “Scooter + Jinx,” even if RollingStone’s David Fricke describes it nicely as “sixty seconds of what sounds like a fleet of revving Harleys.” They’re just whimsical noise that doesn’t add anything, nor do they segue to “Titanium Expose.” Meanwhile, I’ve heard the track tons of times, but I still can’t for the life of me decide if I actually like “My Friend Goo,” or if it’s one of the worst songs the band’s committed to a studio album since their pre-Bad Moon Rising days. There’s this one sort-of cute moment when the males of the band come in tunelessly to say “Hey Goo, what’s new?” but any points the band is awarded are automatically thrown out the window for the Bart Simpson response, “My friend Goo just says, “P U!”” I must’ve heard “Cinderella’s Big Score” (what a great track name) at least five times in a row while enjoying a high sometime in the last year, and while I had enjoyed the track enough to give it a 4-star rating on my Ipod at the time, I’m not quite sure what I liked about it at the time. It’s probably Kim Gordon’s worst vocal delivery on the album, without the empowerment of “Kool Thing,” the dreaminess of “Tunic (Song for Karen),” or the Goofiness of “My Friend Goo” (see what I did there?), which is odd, considering how personal the lyrics are, dealing with her brother, “You’d rather have a dollar / Than a hug from your sis / You really fucked up this time / Your old lady’s really pissed / She’s not just laughing / She’s polishing her fist.” Even instrumentally speaking, it doesn’t offer the same scope that “Mote” or the kinetic finale that closer “Titanium Expose” gives us – great opening riff.
Also, this album cover is all sorts of badassery.