Former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore’s new album The Best Day begins with eight downward arpeggios, which is pretty funny given his reputation as an obsessive guitar technician. Sonic Youth are famous for their alternate tunings, of course, and Moore’s solo albums have always deployed these as a matter of principle. The opener on The Best Day, however, goes further: it sounds like he’s actually tuning a guitar. Then he launches into an epic simmer-stomper that turns those arpeggios into a solid riff and continues to play with your musical expectations. Unlike his previous few projects, this really sounds like the old band. Welcome back.
Ever since Sonic Youth broke up in 2011, with Moore and Kim Gordon separating after 27 years of marriage, its members have been consistently making solo albums at a rate as productive if not more than that of the original group, and for the most part the falloff in musical quality has been surprisingly slight. Moore himself has produced 2011’s very pretty, largely acoustic Demolished Thoughts and the self-titled Chelsea Light Moving side project, the latter featuring a completely unrelated band including various New York avant-guardians. Fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo has released 2012’s Between the Times & the Tides and 2013’s Last Night on Earth, two albums of conventionally melodic, bizarrely beguiling and elegiac drone-rock, incidentally backed by former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. Only bassist Kim Gordon has faltered somewhat, which makes me sad; as much as I want her to start another great band or make a great record, her Body/Head side project’s 2013 debut Coming Apart absolutely fails to qualify, proving instead that sometimes improvised, aleatory noise-rock really can be rather unpleasant to listen to. Ranaldo’s albums are considerably warmer, friendlier, and more lyrical, depicting an ever calmer guitar player evolving into a thoughtful if flat lead singer, a brave indie-rock troubadour who can have a conversation and carry a tune at the same time. And Moore’s The Best Day, released this October, matches and maybe surpasses Ranaldo’s solo work as well as his own — with Shelley’s propulsive beat clanging down behind all the guitar chaos, it rocks a lot harder than Chelsea Light Moving, that’s for sure. It returns to Moore’s old musical signature with renewed spirit and excitement. It’s the Thurston Moore solo album longterm fans have been waiting for.
Typically, Sonic Youth albums before and after the split fall into two categories: rock and avant. The first is explosively aggressive, the second relaxed and happy to drift; the first harnesses their ferocious riffage to a relentless mechanical beat, the second finds little pockets of tranquility within expansive and abrasive improvisation; the first sears your synapses with violent intensity, the second soothes your nerves with patient rapture. Always emotional immediacy is achieved via the crunch and bang of a guitar sound whose chugging, metallic, fluorescent tones and warped scales add something new to the standard noise-rock template. Always they stretch out into sweeping musical landscapes, whole alternate worlds of warped steel and filtered oxygen, the workings of industrial machines and scraping chains, a jazzlike environment that keeps shifting between vehicle and maze. With the composition of each song determined by the particularities of specific customized instruments, their music is virtually impossible to replicate. No other band has ever sounded like them–unless Moore’s current one counts. New guitarist James Sedwards and My Bloody Valentine bassist Debbie Googe probably don’t mesh as well with Moore and Shelley as Gordon and Ranaldo did, but only a fanatic would claim to hear much difference. Our twin guitar gurus definitely crash and slide off each other in outlandish patterns all over The Best Day, which despite Shelley’s drumming lands predictably and conclusively in the avant category. The album drones and stutters rather than zooms and flows, and the first two tracks alone last for almost twenty minutes. But as always, Moore makes every unhinged experiment signify — as novelty, as an adventure to go on, as an excuse to make some beautiful music.
After its arpeggiated intro, “Speak to the Wild” jumpstarts the album. A crackling, muscular beast of a song, its jangly assault slowly and surely builds over eight and a half whole minutes, and when Moore stops singing in the middle, the guitars burst apart as if they’ve wrecked the amplifier, yelping and whining through a piercing linear solo that eventually leads to a total breakdown, upon which it all starts over from the beginning. The slower, messier, and more sublime “Forevermore” repeats the same trick, but for a longer amount of time, and the two pseudoacoustic numbers, “Tape” and “Vocabularies,” squeeze as many creaky, glowing riffs from Moore’s deceptively clear strumming as the uptempo title track does from his roaring powerchord charge. When the instrumental “Grace Lake” breaks out toward the end, the band reaches its peak, tipping over into blissful catharsis as thicker, rougher textures underpin a fluttering lead solo as bright and thin as a sunbeam. Throughout the record, Moore reclaims his mastery over the machine — a fraught, conflicted embrace of urban technology is the linchpin of all noise-rock, evoked and ironized by screeching guitar chaos, and Moore puts a new spin on this idea not just by tuning his instruments differently but, as with so many late-period Sonic Youth albums, by making said chaos achingly humane and beautiful. Although The Best Day feels shorter and slighter than any Sonic Youth album, or Ranaldo’s recent solo albums for that matter, somehow this only increases the impact; it’s sharper and more lyrical in its rumination. Originally conceived as a supremely challenging alienation effect, Moore’s dissonances and weird harmonic scales have since become their own established tradition, and consequently music that from the outside sounds harsh turns sweet and warm under all that static. Even on the faster songs, the mood is calm, mature. Immerse yourself in the electric noisefest and discover a therapeutic bath.
The Best Day is a small gem in a long and rich career full of them. It finds its own musical corner within a vastly original style that has already been fleshed out considerably. One could argue that Moore’s expertise has become routine; certainly the comforting aspects of his guitar sound have subsumed the edgy ones. But that doesn’t make his music any less edgy. He’s found a strong band with whom he can explore his aesthetic ideas and shatter the walls with rock & roll energy. There’s no reason he couldn’t keep making these records forever.