Sonic Youth: NYC Ghosts & Flowers
Released: May 16, 2000
On the night of July 3, 1999, a tired equipment driver on his way to a music festival pulled his truck into the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Orange County and checked in for the night. Sometime after 1 a.m., someone broke into the truck, hotwired it and drove off, taking with them a massive collection of instruments and gear that had been used for the past twenty years to produce and play some of the most important rock music of the era. Sonic Youth had been robbed.
Microphones, amplifiers, effects pedals, a drum kit and 27 guitars were taken, all painstakingly prepared and modified over the years to produce the band’s specific brand of noise rock. They’d later find humor in the fact that the gear was basically unsellable, so Frankenstein-ish in appearance and sonically retrofitted (some of the guitars had been modified for the purpose of playing only one song) that no one would have bought them. Still, the loss was traumatic. They persevered through a performance the next day at the festival with borrowed instruments, but starting from scratch in the studio would prove to be much harder, and the theft became the most jarring sign of a difficult new period in the band’s career.
After nearly 20 years together, the members of Sonic Youth had settled in ways they may never have expected to as young New York punks. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore had started a family and moved from Manhattan to quiet Northampton, Massachusetts. They’d signed to the major label Geffen in 1990, affording them more exposure than ever. The first albums they made with the label–Goo, Dirty, Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star–showed a shift towards more commercially viable alternative rock, while retaining Sonic Youth’s core appeal. But outside of those album’s, their experimental interests not only remained but grew. Individually, they started genre hopping side projects; together, they began releasing obscure, experimental records through their own SYR label. Inevitably, the adventurous spirit of those recordings began spilling over into their studio albums, starting with 1995’s Washing Machine, which ended with the 20 minute guitar epic “The Diamond Sea.” Gordon, primarily the band’s bass player in the past, started playing guitar. Now with three guitar players, the band began focusing more than ever on finely sculpting sound. The songs on A Thousand Leaves stretched into wild jam sessions and canyons of noise.
Sonic Youth had picked a bad time to start experimenting: the grunge surge of the early 90s was waning and their rock-heavy label Geffen was beginning to realize that signing a band like Sonic Youth may have been a poor financial decision. The band mostly ignored the label’s concerns. Despite the loss of their equipment, they planned to press on from where A Thousand Leaves left off and began recording their eleventh album at their Murray Street studio. It was a rough process: working uncomfortably with new gear and instruments scavenged from dusty corners of the studio, they felt like they were starting over. They tried to embrace it.
While the ensuing experimentation of those sessions was freeing, after weeks of recording, the album had yet to take shape. It was obvious that someone needed to make sense of the jams and scattered song ideas they’d produced. The experimental musician Jim O’Rourke had been in Sonic Youth’s New York orbit for several years, though he had little interest in their music. A musician enamored with a wide range of genres, everything from harsh noise to sunny pop, O’Rourke had been unimpressed by Sonic Youth’s supposedly avant-garde sounds and lost interest in indie rock entirely just as they were taking off. He met Moore and Ranaldo in the 90s and was impressed to learn of their experimental, non-Sonic Youth work and Moore’s free jazz work. When they asked him to come in and listen to the tapes they’d produced, he was finally on board with the band, proclaiming that they were making the kind of music that he’d always wanted to hear from Sonic Youth. He worked with them for weeks, gradually compiling the tapes into what would become Sonic Youth’s most controversial record yet.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers opens with its most familiar sounding song, a smattering of urban poetry over a long, tuneful jam, called “Free City Rhymes.” But the chiming guitars that open the song and the explosion of semi-electronic noise that closes it signal the unfamiliarity that the rest of the album holds. “Rhymes” was one of two songs written before the equipment theft. The other, “Renegade Princess,” is as close as Sonic Youth get to some of their adolescent classic rock influences, turning lyrics into stadium cants and thundering through the song’s midsection on a pounding rock ‘n’ roll beat.
The record’s most obvious influence is New York’s beat era legends: Moore viewed Sonic Youth as part of their legacy and considered the album a tribute to them. These good intentions lead to the album’s least effective track, Moore’s own “Small Flowers Crack Concrete.” A tribute to the poet d.a. levy, Moore’s self-consciously dry, spoken word delivery and counter-culture lyrics come across as cliche and a bit goofy: “The narcs beat the bearded oracles / Replacing tantric love / With complete violence.” Moore’s other lyrical experiment–the absurd urban sci-fi interlude “StreamXSonik Subway”–is far more tolerable, and the brief, helter skelter track features one of O’Rourke’s most obvious contributions in the form of a garbled electronic bridge.
Lee Ranaldo taps into the beat spirit most successfully with the album’s beautiful, climactic title track, a song inspired both by the dying culture of New York and the passing of Ranaldo’s father during the sessions, filling his lyric with obscure references, rain-soaked city imagery and haunted memories. He’s joined by a storm of guitars, building gradually into a bellowing din that nearly swallows the powerful closing lyrics: “I hear your voice, I speak your name / Among New York City ghosts and flowers / Will we meet? To run again? / Through New York City ghosts and flowers.”
Kim Gordon’s presence is less felt than on previous Sonic Youth records, but she does provide another of its best songs. “Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)” features some of the album’s most creative and beautiful guitar playing, sifting through several melodies while Gordon sings lyrics evoking the destroyed lives of young artists like Basquiat and Kurt Cobain, and cleverly modified children’s rhymes (“Boys go to Jupiter, get more stupider / Girls go to Mars, become rock stars.”) She appears again on the bizarrely tense, word salad filled “Side2Side” and “Lightnin’”, as strange a closer as one could expect from an album as divisive and mysterious as NYC Ghosts & Flowers, a four minute collage of unidentifiable drones, squawking bike horns and Gordon’s languid mantra, like the haphazard experiments of the early krautrock and industrial bands.
For critics and many fans, NYC Ghosts & Flowers was something of a breaking point. Though Sonic Youth had been experimenting with their sound for several years, the new record seemed too radical and self-conscious a shift to some, one that couldn’t just be blamed on new gear. For the first time in years, Sonic Youth was at odds with the critical community. Pitchfork notoriously gave the album a 0.0 (a decision Brent DiCrescenzo starts questioning before the review is even over). The fans were not much kinder. The band found themselves facing tough crowds as they played sets packed with new material and droning improvisation. For a band as lauded and beloved for their creativity as Sonic Youth, it was a startling response. In every criticism of the album the same word kept appearing: pretentious. Sonic Youth had made a pretentious, obnoxious album, many said. And to be fair, a song that ends with the line “blue jean fucking, and protest” (“Small Flowers Crack Concrete”) almost invites the criticism.
But hadn’t Sonic Youth always exuded a particular kind of pretension? To most listeners, the ear shredding guitars, the obscure lyrics, the affected singing styles, would seem to be just that: pretentiousness. Even at their most commercial in the early 90s, Sonic Youth struggled to obtain the success that their young grunge disciples enjoyed, too loud, too intellectual, too New York to ever woo all of America at once. And at the same time, they knew how to hold back, kept working at beautiful melody and ass-kicking rock ‘n’ roll, straddling a thin line between the ultimately safe sphere of indie rock and the hinterlands of the avant-garde. When an unimpressed Jim O’Rourke heard Sonic Youth for the first time in the 80s, he likely heard them as a band who could play at experimentation but would always run back into the comforting arms of rock music. With NYC Ghosts & Flowers, they had finally stopped playing.
The album’s poor reception ultimately had little effect on Sonic Youth. They weathered 9/11 (both O’Rourke and Ranaldo were living blocks from the towers at the time) and their next album, the first with O’Rourke as a full-fledged member, was hailed as a return to form. And after several more albums and a heartbreaking split, NYC Ghosts & Flowers has been rightfully reappraised and rediscovered by many of its critics, acknowledged as one of the band’s most challenging and fascinating releases. While it may have struck some as ugly or unfamiliar, it is in many ways the most beloved, fundamental aspects of Sonic Youth exaggerated to their inevitable extremes, collecting some of their most poetic and most absurd lyrics, the purest noise they’d ever generated, their most loving tributes to the city and culture that birthed them. These are the things you wanted out of Sonic Youth, and here they are, turned all the way up.