This is the first Sonic Youth (and probably the best example excepting Goo) where the album cover so perfectly captures what the music is about. The foghorns on “Ghost Bitch,” the ideology within “Brave Men Run,” Thurston Moore screaming in the first few seconds of “Death Valley ‘69” – all perfectly descriptive of Hallowe’en-mania.
Of the three drummers that Sonic Youth had for their first three recordings, Bob Bert is the worst. Richard Edson was easily the most interesting of the band on their debut, and Confusion is Sex’s Jim Sclavunos might not have been much to write home about, but his drumrolls singlehandedly saved the bridge on “Kill Yr. Idols” and his restraint on “Protect Me You” contributed to its atmosphere. Bob Bert keeps time, sure, but I think if the band asked him to do anything else (ie. a drumroll), he might have had a nervous breakdown. Or maybe he did and that’s why there are none on the record.
A little matter of housekeeping: I don’t care if you’re an audiophile, make sure the copy of Bad Moon Rising you’ve obtained is the CD version, which comes with 4 bonus tracks. Of these, two are most definitely throwaways. “Satan is Boring” is the only track on the album where Thurston Moore’s obnoxious “I’m a punk rocker!” vocal style survives, and it’s fucking 5 minutes worth, whereas “Kill Yr. Idols” was a brisk (and therefore tolerable) 3 minutes. “[Echo Canyon]” ends the album on an unremarkable whimper – 80% of it sounds like the recording of wind – but it’s a minute long, so who cares? But the bonus tracks includes the single Flower / Halloween which is essential Sonic Youth listening – more on that later.
The most impressive aspect of Bad Moon Rising is how the entire album (not including the bonus tracks) effortlessly segue into one another – something I’m sure took the band a bit of effort – and how, at the same time, each song can be approached individually and still sound good while removed from the context of the album. I mean, that’s the reason why I don’t care that “Justice Is Might” is on here – the worst track on the vinyl version – the outro that leads into it from “I’m Insane” is wonderful. You just survived nuclear fallout, you grab the radio next to you and you constantly play with the dials waiting for something to filter through. And eventually, it does, a barely audible yet menacing voice and it’s far from the consolation you need. Sure, I wish that the lyrics had something significant to say than just “Justice is might” but it’s not like we’re here for the lyrics (they’ll improve those a year). On “Justice is Might,” the first half is bad poetry and the second half is bad guitar wankery – it’d be fine if the noise actually went anywhere, but it just goes back and forth while you wait for “Death Valley ‘69” to start. Elsewhere, I’m not sure when the pretty guitars of “Intro” (the first time they just play guitars instead of fuck around with them) naturally become the calamity of “Brave Men Run (In My Family),” but they do.
None of the tracks that I haven’t criticized already are bad, both because Thurston tries (and succeeds, sometimes) to carry a melody in his vocals (Kim Gordon does Kim Gordon things) and because there’s some fascinating stuff going on in the music. For example, there’s the industrial percussion of “Society Is a Hole” (thank you for your lyrical insight, Thurston); the foghorns of “Ghost Bitch” that lend an eerie atmosphere to it; the middle stretch of “I’m Insane” where Thurston Moore does a stream-of-consciousness reading of lines picked out of summaries and titles of randomly chosen fiction novels (“Love starved backwood teaser farm girl hot eyed bride stone cold blonde a quivering menace atomic wallop wholesale murder” is the best opening line on the album, and his repeated “Inside my head my dog’s a bear, she’s significant, I’m insane” is the best closing lines on the album).
But the album bears Sonic Youth’s first few perfect songs, sorry to all you Confusion is Sex lovers – all ~10 of you. Once “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” has finally settled on a groove, it’s a matter of navigating yourself between Kim’s best singing so far and what the guitars are doing in the empty spaces between her bars. I’d call it something between a “crunch” and a “ping” – a “crinch” or a “prunch.” Then there’s “Death Valley ’69,” which has the bass form a corporeal rhythm (instead of just noodling out noise as on the other tracks). I’ve heard complains about the guest vocalist, Lydia Lunch (of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks fame), but I think her fleetfootedness matches Thurston’s groundedness perfectly, and on live versions of the track where she’s replaced by Kim Gordon, there’s something missing. The best part is when she tries to match the wailing guitar, letting out a bloodcurdling moan that stretches out and actually overpowers the guitar (at the 4:45 mark). Meanwhile, the serpentine hiss that opens “Flower” is the first time in Sonic Youth’s early discography where their penchant for fucking with their guitars makes me think, “Damn, a guitar made that noise?”, while “Halloween” is the first time Sonic Youth successfully uses noise for atmosphere, instead of just noise.
The offhand way she says “Use the word! / Fuck!” compared to way she roars “The word is LOVE!” on “Flower” is fantastic. Actually, considering the way Thurston Moore says “Bitch” later on “Schizophrenia,” the way he demands “Do you like to fuck?” later on “(I Got A) Catholic Block,” and the way Kim Gordon says “Fuck you, are you for sale?” later on “The Sprawl,” these all provide evidence that Sonic Youth were probably the best bands around at using dirty little words to great effect.
“…beneath all that cool psuedo-academic hogwash lurked a very passionate [wo]man who knew how important it was to say “fuck” now and then, and say it loud too, relish its syllabic sweetness, its immigrant pride, a great American epic word really, starting at the lower lip, often the very front of the lower lip, before racing all the way to the back of the throat, where it finishes with a great blast, the concussive force of the K catching up then with the hush of the F already on its way, thus loading it with plenty of offense and edge and certainly ambiguity. FUCK. A great by-the-bootstrap prayer or curse if you prefer, depending on how you look at it, or use it, suited perfectly for hurling at the skies or at the world, or sometimes, if said just right, for uttering with enough love and fire, the woman beside you melts inside herself, immersed in all that word-heat.”