Holy shit, Christgau called it, didn’t he? Boldface mine:
Thurston Moore claims Rather Ripped “isn’t particularly different from any previous Sonic Youth releases,” but that’s just his fealty to his band’s tunings talking–to a sonic signature that, having pretty much launched an alt-rock generation, is now counted boring by many non-old. Fact is, every Sonic Youth album varies within the broad boundaries of their guitaristic practices. In that capacious context, A Thousand Leaves did mark a turning point, which reflects not just the deterioration that afflicts human bodies as they turn 40 into 50, but also, if you’ll pardon some biography, Kim and Thurston’s absorption of the parenthood they undertook in 1994: the extra pressure, the lost time, the future that subsumes your own, the messy roommate you love to pieces. Concomitantly, the words of that album, insofar as they make sense, evoke a maturing marriage in a lyrical phase, with Kim’s “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” adding essential sex appeal. On Ripped, which shares its name with a legendary Berkeley record store, a similar union may be rather riven, or may not. The non-old clearly aren’t obliged to care about these things. But critics of any age ought to recognize that they’re there.
Sonic Youth have certainly written lyrics that stick–for my taste, most often about music (“Dirty Boots,” “New Hampshire”) or politics (“Kool Thing,” “Youth Against Fascism”). But where their opposite numbers Yo La Tengo put Ira and Georgia’s love life on the public record, Sonic Youth don’t seem to sing about Kim and Thurston. It’s that Brechtian distance thing again, magnified by vocal deficiencies they play as strengths. Does Kim have a girlfriend on the side? Is her “What a waste/You’re so chaste” directed at “Turquoise Boy”? How about Thurston’s “Sleepin’ Around”? In the end, I don’t much care. What matters to me is how these unresolved intimations are allayed and disarmed by the uncharacteristic lightness of music that nevertheless gets strange when you listen hard.
If you didn’t know, indie rock’s most likeable couple, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, had a nasty split brought on by infidelity that also caused the end of one of the greatest and longest-lasting rock bands in the history of rock, indie or otherwise (we’re talking a consistent career from 1985 to 2006). Back in 2006, this wasn’t public knowledge, which means that the lyrics here about Thurston’s male gaze running amok could have just been taken as whimsy or nostalgia. Listening now in 2015, and the lyrics are easily the worst part of Rather Ripped, like Thurston Moore childishly rubbing his infidelity in the faces of his unknowing bandmates. “Sleepin’ Around” is the best/worst example, with only two verses repeated throughout, one of which repeating “Sleeping around / What will the neighbours say?” and the other justifying it, “Nothing you do is right / Always ends in a fight.” But elsewhere, “Lights Out”‘s hook, “She scans the room / For a star to consume” takes on a second meaning, and “Or”‘s talk of an unnamed woman with “canisters of whipped cream” in her sweater pockets is no longer a page from a diary about the past but rather a page in a journal about the present.
For the record #1: I don’t condone cheating. It’s a cowardly thing to do (though if your significant other is abusive or cheats on you, than you have my blessing), and if you’re going to hide behind some defense about how monogamous relationships aren’t natural or how some people are more genetically predisposed to cheating than others (which is apparently true), then the solution is simple: don’t enter a committed relationship in the first place, you fuck. For the record #2: the B+ score that ends this review was decided long before their breakup was made public; it’s just worth pointing out that this is by far their worst release from purely a lyrical perspective – 100% Thurston’s fault, SY pun not intended – since their nihilistic nothings as a no wave band. A shame, since they’ve been constantly honing their poetry since then, culminating in some really beautiful imagery to go with their music in Washing Machine (ie. “The Diamond Sea”) and A Thousand Leaves (ie. “Hits for Sunshine”) , not that anyone was paying attention by then. “Sleepin’ Around” wasn’t much to begin with: the noisiest song on their most accessible album. Now, it’s just a fuck. Lazy criticism, you say? Befitting for a lazy song. Onwards.
The rest of this album makes for their most consistent work since 2002’s Murray Street, or barring that, 1992’s Dirty (all of the releases in the interim have had undeniably weak songs or sections). Quoting Christgau again, “Most SY guitars are thick, dirty, doubled, the better to amplify and complicate the weird scales that underlie music you can get lost in and quite often hum. On Rather Ripped, however, guitars are cleanly articulated, given over to tunelets and quasi-arpeggios that cycle through the songs like the good little hooks they are.” In addition, Steve Shelley’s drumming often sounds like it was recorded from far away, adding to the more meditative atmosphere, especially on “Do You Believe in Rapture?” and “Or.”
Some details: the guitar riff of “Reena” that kicks open the doors and begins the record as one of their cleanest and catchiest and most colorful (particularly love how it leads into a twitchy fill that leads into a completely different line that segues into the verse … and people call them lazy?); the constantly moving guitar throughout the verses of “Incinerate”; the guitar turning into stifled screams during the choruses of “What a Waste”; the always trusty Lee Ranaldo’s imagery throughout “Rats,” and specifically talks of “Cold suicide” against “Fractured sunshine,” and the way the noisy guitar grapples to life between 2:25 and 2:50 (“GO! GO!”); Kim Gordon recreating the lovely vocals of Sonic Nurse’s “I Love You Golden Blue” for “Turquoise Boy”; the intro of “Pink Steam” that captures the prettiness of the title: arms outstretched welcoming the falling snow. Sure, some tracks aren’t perfect: Steve Shelley needs more variation to push “What a Waste” along, the way Kim Gordon handles the choruses of “The Neutral” are clumsy and feel at odds against the sweet singing she does in the verses, and “Or” just patters into nothingness.
If nothing else, walk away with “Do You Believe in Rapture?”, pretty harmonics contrasting with a backdrop of uneasy noise as Thurston sings his most likeable lyrics with the most melody on the album. The bridge – where the noise dissipates, Steve Shelley finally becomes active (comparatively), and the chords turn to arpeggios – might be their best executed bridge in a long time.