I find it fascinating how Sonic Youth has split up so neatly into its constituent parts. Kim Gordon is exploring abstraction and noise with Body/Head, Thurston Moore is riffing his way through the history of punk and metal with Chelsea Light Moving, and Lee Ranaldo is making arguably the biggest gains by marrying his extensive range of guitar techniques and tones to what might be called traditional rock song craft. It’s rare for a band to split up and give us such clear signs of where each member’s taste lies. After years of blending these influences together, the band members are finally free to follow their own respective muses.
Ranaldo always held a strange position in Sonic Youth. He was the closest thing the band had to a traditional “guitar hero”. His sky-scraping guitar solos were always pushing the band closer to classic rock than people realize. In addition, his songwriting always veered toward the melodic, even when those melodies were buried under aural squalls and shaped by free-associative Beat poetry and weird hippie-speak. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he became the Sonic Youth version of George Harrison: a peerless guitarist and talented songwriter, who for whatever reason only got one or two songs per album. Gordon and Moore were always seen as the principles, and consequently Ranaldo’s beautiful songs have generally taken a back seat on Sonic Youth releases. But, just like Harrison, he has been saving up great ideas for years, and has put all that he learned about guitar alchemy and poetry into his first “rock” solo releases. This is his “All Things Must Pass”.
It started last year, with “Between the Times and the Tides”. I loved that record, as it seemed to encapsulate everything that Lee does well, from monster rock jams to abstract tone poems about politics. Evidently energized by the experience, he has spun that project off into the most traditional of singer-songwriter vehicles: the Backing Band. “Last Night On Earth” is the first album to feature the Dust, the band who backed him on tour last year. The band is made up of a couple of lesser-known top-notch New York musicians (Alan Licht and Tim Luntzel on guitar and bass, respectively) and the mighty Steve Shelley on drums. It’s great to hear Shelley finally cut loose and power through some dynamic rock songs with choruses and (mostly) steady beats. Instead of inserting abstract, skittering beats into the powerful drones created by SY, he’s colouring inside the lines of Ranaldo’s assured, melodically rich compositions. Combining the established style and shorthand of Ranaldo and Shelley with their new collaborators, The Dust is a deceptively experimental rock band with serious chops. It’s hard to imagine Sonic Youth being this tight or melodically lean, in the conventional sense.
“Last Night On Earth” is an album in the old-school meaning of the term. It is nine songs which ebb and flow together, and sound best when absorbed as a whole. The genres diverge somewhat on each tune, but they all work together as a comprehensive statement. It all sounds like Lee Ranaldo: an amalgam of psychedelia, classic rock, West coast Seventies folk, and abstract guitar jams, and beautifully vague poetics. But where Sonic Youth delighted in poking the fragile links between music and other forms of art, Lee ignores the aesthetic questions in favour of some sweet, jubilant jamming. He’s finally finished art school, and now he just wants to rock. The songs brim with exciting riffs and clever shifts in the arrangements. At times, it’s like they’re stacking hooky riffs on top of each other, trying to see how high they can build their house of cards, before it all tumbles down between the cymbals and the feedback.
“Last Night On Earth” also serves as a crash course in guitar textures and tones. There’s enough going on with the guitars on this record to keep the six-string nerds busy for years as they try to decode every effect. Again, hearing these techniques incorporated in more conventional songs helps to keep the music fresh and interesting. The production style of the album is organic, fusing a live band sound with layered instrumental passages, which helps to give the songs a sense of space, even when there are tons of sounds swirling around.
Thematically, the title says it all. Ranaldo seems to be meditating on some vague disaster right around the corner. Whether the impending doom he’s talking about is universal (economic collapse) or more personal (a middle-aged guitarist who suddenly finds himself without his beloved band), it’s difficult to say. A lot of these songs can be read as pleas to humanity in general, or to an absent friend. The nagging question at the heart of either interpretation is the same: how can we use the time we have left to create something lasting and beautiful?
Beginning with the multi-part rock opus “Lecce, Leaving”, and finishing with the epic modern blues hypnosis of “Blackt Out”, the record takes off like a rocket and never comes back down, leaving Lee Ranaldo and the Dust howling through the void, bouncing off of the planets like ancient static. If this is indeed the last night on earth, then these gentlemen are here to fill the air with beautiful noise until there’s nothing left.
It’s incredibly satisfying for me to hear Lee sing these songs. I always knew he had it in him.