A reconfiguration of Sonic Youth’s legendary sound
Sonic Youth vocalist and guitarist Thurston Moore is back with his sixth studio album, By the Fire. While the album mostly remains firmly in the pocket of what one would expect from a member of Sonic Youth in terms of sound, Moore makes plenty of structural leaps of faith on this project. He lands some beautifully, but unfortunately, a number of them fall flat, and result in slogs that weigh down an already chunky track list. While there’s no denying the unbelievable technical ability or songwriting skill that Thurston Moore can wield, it does feel like he lost track of what makes his pocket of alternative music so intensely entertaining at the worst moments on By the Fire.
“Hashish,” “Cantaloupe” and “Breath” open the album with some of Moore’s most immediately fulfilling rock. Longtime fans of Sonic Youth will feel right at home with the electric guitar tones and fiery rhythms on all three. Moore peppers in small, but satisfying doses of noise at just the right moments, and gives the palette time to relax whenever it needs it. It’s like a sixth sense for him, and it always results in a better song. His reflections on the false sense of fulfillment that drugs can provide are also genuinely interesting.
“Siren” is where Moore’s visions of expansive alternative rock, that quickly alternates between the beautiful and the noisy, start to fall apart. At two minutes longer than the runtime of already bold tracks like “Breath,” “Siren” quickly starts to feel like needless indulgence. It’s a whole lot of lead-up, and just few exciting moments thrown in here and there, without any clear or specific climax. There are certainly moments in here that could’ve functioned as a sort of interlude, but these moments are crowded by largely uninteresting plodding. Simply put, there just isn’t enough going on musically to warrant this large slice of the album’s total runtime; this becomes a theme for Moore on this project.
“Calligraphy” is a different story; while significantly more straight forward structurally, the track is a much more rewarding listen. There are gorgeous guitar tones abound, constant sly rhythmic adjustments that never cease to impress and Moore’s unusual vocal pattern, which sounds right at home over the laid-back guitar.
“Locomotives” completely jumps the shark. It takes everything that didn’t work on “Siren,” and makes it the centerpiece of a whole 16-minute movement. Time after time, Moore shows he is capable of making interesting additions across the course of a long track. Whether it be finding new drum grooves, weaving guitar solos into one another or just expanding upon the most cacophonous and abrasive passages, Moore is trying new things often. He just has trouble limiting himself in how long he focuses on each new addition. It’s not even like the track should’ve been a tight three minutes; it just absolutely did not need to be the 16-minute drag that it ends up becoming. Any impact that the relatively strong final few minutes would’ve had is cancelled by sheer musical exhaustion.
The final three tracks, “Dreamers Work,” “They Believe in Love (When They Look at You)” and “Venus,” are a mixed bag. The gritty guitar on “Dreamers Work” manages to stand out among plenty of other amazing and tactile tones (Moore’s vocal performance is also great here), while the penultimate “They Believe in Love” gets trapped in a similar instrumental purgatory to some of the earlier tracks (despite it’s very interesting final few minutes). “Venus” closes the album on an eerie note, intensifying Moore’s commitment to the vast and dark, while adding to his collection of tracks that could’ve used a less generous editorial mind.
On another note, Thurston Moore should continue to attempt perfection in this format. Maybe a project like this demands the collective mind of a project like Sonic Youth, not just a solo experiment. Who knows. The only things that this album truly proved is that Moore is imperfect. Even a member of Sonic Youth is not impervious to the occasional musical misstep. Fortunately though, most of the big missteps on this album are sequestered away on a select few tracks, leaving the best moments on By the Fire ripe for repeat listens. Committed fans of this sound are likely to still find more than enough into which they can sink their teeth.