Sonic Youth - "Theme de Jeremie" (Simon Werner a Disparu OST)
In his review of Rather Ripped, Emerson Dameron posits that there are “two different groups called Sonic Youth”: one with a noisy, experimental bent, exemplified by the SYR series, limited releases, and a more “collective” feel; the other is the “band,” who meld noise with pop forms, Can with Madonna, and who release proper albums on big labels. With that setup, a normal review would then say that this release belies that distinction, blending the explorations of the “collective” with the tighter song forms and melodies of the “band.” But that’s not really the case on Simon Werner a Disparu. Yes, this album is on SYR. Yes, it is entirely instrumental. Yes, it features Jim O’Rourke (on the final track). And, yes, it occasionally dissolves into those twinkling guitar textures that do occasionally find their way into the Sonic Youth the “band” (see “Diamond Sea” or “Karen Revisited”). But unlike other SYR releases, this album feels like a pop record, with clearly defined “tunes” and self-contained song forms. Or, to put it more flippantly, it’s as if the “band” decided to re-record Rather Ripped without the vocals. To abuse Emerson’s analogy a little bit more, this is the “band” disguised as the “collective” trying to fool us. Or something like that.
What I can’t decide, though, is if this album would actually benefit from vocals. There are absolutely moments where I expect Kim to snarl or Thurston to mumble through some anthem or other. We’ve become so conditioned to the specific aural cues of a Sonic Youth pop song that the absence of vocals creates a palpable negative space. Thurston’s and Lee’s intertwining guitar work can occasionally fill that hole, but more often than not they only emphasize it. Now, it must be noted that this is the soundtrack to a French film of the same name - released as Lights Out here in the states. So Sonic Youth are most likely allowing space for the film, allowing themselves to recede into the background, rather than being consciously mute.
All that negative space, though, does let us actually dissect various musical elements that Sonic Youth use to create songs. Their approach to songs seems to have solidified in the naughts to the point where they have a few set modes of musical discourse. And now that we’ve all gotten past the question of whether or not their latest album is the true reincarnation of Daydream Nation, it’s nice to be able to just bask in the variegated textures and layers of sound. Given all that space, Thurston, Lee, and Steve (Kim is here, but she doesn’t do all that much) show off their sense of restraint and their ability to construct spaces and then wander through them. Unencumbered by vocals and their concrete significations, these elements can shine on their own as pure, free-floating signifiers and bursts of affect.
But what that also means is that there’s nothing here that a seasoned listener hasn’t heard before in some form or other. That’s the downside of the solidification of Sonic Youth’s sound. There’s nothing here that really surprises or pushes the listener – the “Thème d’Alice” is a nicely melodic, long-form jam a la Murray St. (hello, Jim), but even that we’ve heard before. So I’m left feeling rather ambivalent. This is utterly pleasant untroubled listening, which can lead all too quickly to unconsidered listening, a mode that I can’t see either Sonic Youth ever really embracing. I’d rather listen to Rather Ripped.