Definitely around long enough to be considered venerable, Sonic Youth has now settled into comfortably familiar formula, a creative deficiency that, especially after a similarly dry period in the late ‘90s, threatens to push them entirely into a Rolling Stones-like state of living death, floundering in perpetually active totemic insignificance. That may be an overanxious conclusion, especially only one album removed from the stark simplicity of 2006’s Rather Ripped, but The Eternal is certainly creatively stagnant enough to provoke such doubts.
In some ways, Eternal is an especially safe variation on the same album Sonic Youth has been putting out for years, wherein torrents of fuzzy, off-kilter guitars wash against sturdy basslines like driven rain and songs collapse into formless noise before rebuilding, while Thurston Moore intones grimly and Kim Gordon responds in a half-playful, half-mocking voice. While Rather Ripped represented this sound boiled down to its essentials, Eternal is all rehashed summary of the same, without the reductive edge of those broken shards. There’s the poetic impenetrability of the lyrics, the shout-out songs (to Bobby Pym, a.k.a. Darby Crash of the Germs, and Gregory Corso), a continued nod to the Beat Generation, among others. It’s obviously unfair to expect a rebirth from a 27-year-old band every time out, but the material here seems dishearteningly recycled, rendered almost entirely colorless by its reconstituted nature.
That isn’t to say the music isn’t competent. Sonic Youth has long had its sound fixed at an impressively high level of craftsmanship, assuring that even the driest tracks have something to offer. Songs like “Sacred Trickster” and “Malibu Gas Station” are blandly and rotely satisfying, possessing an easy, retrospective feel. Thankfully, the band has built a foundation strong enough to support this spare-parts style of déjà vu, which keeps the music seeming crisp, at least for the moment. The vacillating male-female focus of the album’s songs is as distinctively snappy as ever, with Moore and Gordon trading flatly delivered half-nonsense, conversely helming songs that encompass bucking guitar lines and thick squalls of blustery noise. Married since 1984, the couple has reached a level of easy rapport that makes their collaborations feel warmly alive. Hopefully the band’s sound won’t continue to settle into the same kind of comfortable informality.