The musical discord that feeds and essentially is Sonic Youth has been both a blessing and a curse to the veteran noisemakers. With 1988's Daydream Nation, it constructed one of the greatest records of artpop disharmony in the history of rock and roll, then managed to snag a major label record deal to explore more of the same. Expected to unravel convention and assemble "art" from the pieces, Sonic Youth flourished and then stumbled in the '90s. Its last good album, 1995's Washing Machine, found salvation while breaking down even its own flimsy set of rules in "Diamond Sea," a 19-minute piece of wasteland survey that was the most self-indulgent thing this very self-indulgent band had ever done.
Five years on, the band has retired to its home studio and created its own label to make records further out there than even its most dedicated fans could have ever imagined. Its return to the big leagues, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, is spirited -- but also heavy going at times. The cacophony at the center of every good Sonic Youth record doesn't rely so much on even the slightest of melodic structure, but on the hope that something decent might turn up. That hope, and ultimate fulfillment, is all over Daydream Nation and even Goo, the band's 1990 breakthrough. NYC Ghosts & Flowers is more problematic and complicated than either of those records.
The songs' structures balance the gray between black and white. Indeed, this is an album about art (a William S. Burroughs painting graces the cover), not art in the fucked-up-pop sense that Sonic Youth has been toying with for nearly 20 years. This is the more conventional type, even if the music -- a combination of guitar rave-ups/breakdowns and rambling freeform -- isn't. This is rock and roll, and it isn't. The chiming guitars that climb to a full ring on "Free City Rhymes" aren't that much different from the ones that did similar tricks on Sister 13 years ago. But there's more control here, a self-imposed limit on the distortion, feedback, and collapse. Each of the song's seven minutes is used economically, whether it's Thurston Moore's near-whisper vocals or the quiet slapping of Steve Shelley's drums. This is Sonic Youth settling into the middle, and NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the band making the best of it.