The early albums led to it, the later ones strayed from it in varying degrees of brilliant: 1988's Daydream Nation was the album, "Teen Age Riot" was the Epiphany, and the noise was never again so catchy or perfect. Those who'd claim not to "get" Sonic Youth--those who don't come undone at the prospect of guitars played tunefully out of tune, those for whom Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon aren't the hip couple to idolize--probably never gave Daydream Nation a chance. They likely glossed over its surface noise and never noticed that so close to the surface lurked a defiant, dreary, decadent pop album. It was the first, and the last, "alternative rock" album--Sonic Youth's attempt at containing the dizzying feedback and ferocious howls and frenzied beats within conventional forms, whether it was the almost catchy "Kissability" or the appropriately named "Sprawl," which went on and on even when it ended.
Since then--that is, since Sonic Youth signed to Geffen and became the ubiquitous post-pop-culture symbols/new-alt-rock grandparents with various side projects and TV shows and clothing lines--it's been hit-and-miss, the sound of revolutionaries growing older and settling down without losing touch. The guitar noise has grown softer, more textured; the vocals have subsided from a howl to a whisper; the layers have been peeled back to reveal the soft muscle beneath the weathered flesh. Washing Machine, the band's 13th (counting EPs and LPs) and newest album, does not pack the wallop of the band's earliest albums or even the later Geffen ones (especially Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star); its subtlety could at first be mistaken for boredom, formula, painting-by-numbers.
But listening closely reveals that Washing Machine is the middle-age Daydream Nation--the songs tidy and sprawling, dissonant and clear, enormous and minute. It covers little new ground but reinvents the familiar formula (Sonic Youth are nothing if not the Grateful Dead of art-avant-rock): "Saucer-Like" begins as a quiet drone with Lee Ranaldo sing-speaking the hazy lyrics ("A dreamer dreams of feelings that never fall at all") and Kim Gordon humming a pretty melody till the song builds to a quick and dissonant false climax, sliding back into a drone. "Unwind" and "Little Trouble Girl" (the latter of which features once and future Breeder/Amp Kim Deal in a co-lead vocal) are almost pretty, dreamy, their inexplicable power coming from the subversion of expectation; they still border on hilarious melodrama (Gordon's soliloquy to her mother in "Girl" recalls the dreadful "Tunic (Song for Karen)" from Goo), but now there's a certain poignancy hanging over the music. But that's what happens when punks pay their dues, pave the road, and grow the hell up--they can get away with anything, just because they can.
Sonic Youth performs November 17 at the Bomb Factory. Polvo opens.