On July 4, 1999, thieves made off with the van housing all of Sonic Youth’s gear. One minute it’s in the Ramada Inn parking lot, the next it’s being pushed through congested California roads to meet its destiny.
SY soldiered on, playing their scheduled gig at the This Ain’t No Picnic festival thanks to the generosity of the other bands on the bill, who likely did not have to be asked twice. A lesser band, comprised of lesser people, may have quit. The guitars you spent years collecting and modifying to specifications that 0.7% of anyone in the history of the instrument would ever conjure, the effects, the drums…all gone. Forcing Thurston Moore for the first time in his life to play a goddamn Les Paul.
While I believe–I mean, yeah, let’s get this outta the way–that NYC Ghosts & Flowers is the band’s worst album, I do not blame it’s inferior quality on the gear theft. I don’t “blame” anything. Great artists aren’t always great. 1942. Beatles For Sale. Floaters. Ya know? Everyone, given time, will slip. Maybe even fall.
The Yootz recruited master musician/producer/remixer/prepared-sound craftsman Jim O’Rourke for some guidance and extra squiggle. He would soon take on a much greater role.
“Free City Rhymes”–For being the nadir of their discography, it sure has a stunning start. The chiming notes are apportations materializing over a screeching, vibrating swamp. Thurston wastes no time: “Ghosts passing time.” More lines of casual spectral travel follow.
A harbinger of things to come, though, is the seven and half minute run time. Not the length, but the padding. The noise at the end seems there for its own sake. Before this song, that was one accusation I didn’t feel you could rightfully hurl at them.
“Renegade Princess”–Thurston, Kim and Lee on vocals should be a treat on par with a fat plate of Mississippi Mud Cake. But this album isn’t called MS Ghosts and Flowers now is it?
Minute and a half of tedious wordage passes before they wake Steve up. Once he is free to be his other alter ego, Stevey Shell the Unflinching King of Bap!, “Renegade Princess” actually gets interesting! It gains menace (“They’re gonna fight for your blood tonight”) and Thurston’s subdued snarl sounds better here than it has in years.
Rafael Toral contributes galactic guitfiddle as the song nears its conclusion. Would’ve really helped at the beginning too.
“Nevermind (What Was It Anyway?)”–Tense and sultry, with sonics wisely tamped throughout. Nowhere is this more evident than the infamous “Boys go to Jupiter/Get more stupider/Girls go to Mars/Become rock stars” section, where it seems like the fellas could really blast windows out if they wanted to, but they’re just not.
And about those lines…my God, every argument for the alleged uselessness of Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth seems to begin and end with reference to those lyrics. Which she borrowed from her young daughter. Kim Gordon did not, repeat did not come up with that couplet on her own. It’s a pretty basic playground chant throughout history, people, or at least the history of playgrounds. It ain’t all genius outta the mouths of babes, okay, Tina Fey’s daughter is the extreme exception.
Boys go to Jupiter, get more stupider
Girls go to Mars, and drive red cars
Boys go to Jupiter, get more stupider
Girls go to Mars, eat candy bars
It’s fucking hilarious that after references to Basquiat and being naked she just throws that in there. Every review I read decrying the puerile terror I just love the part that much more.
“Small Flowers Crack Concrete”–This here? This is some sloppy Thurston. A turgid, urgent turd masquerading as beatific poetry.
NYC street scene
The ripped shirt, a bloody mattress
Lying on top of a Puerto Rican pirate
The clairvoyant homosexual pretzel vendor
Cheap dirt carpet marijuana
“What did you bring me?
Not a goddamn thing, yeah
And what did you leave me?
Another tombstone dream, yeah”
“Oh salacious mansion.” “Salacious” is one of the greatest words ever. It sounds like you’re licking barbecue sauce off of an especially exquisite body part. And this is what he does to it?
“Panic net.” Okay, that one actually sounds good. Quality band moniker, too, if anyone is so inclined. But I cannot make it through this song. Nothing memorable I actually want to remember happens during it.
“Bleed for nothing, nada.”
I’m surprised he didn’t go on, “Squat, bubkes, zilch. Mister Dobalina, Mister Bob Dobalina.”
“Side2Side”--Jim O and William Winant help out on this art piece that features Kim stoically reciting commonplace words whilst rolling up pot in pans. Mind-fucking live, trust me.
“StreamXSonik Subway”–A quirky quark, imaginatively constructed. There is quite a bit to enjoy here: the main guit part could inspire Doozers to erect cave-smashing towers; Thurston’s A, A, A, B, C, C, C, B scheme, wherein he spins up some colored and coded wordplay; his snug-not-smug delivery, featuring the personality that “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” lacked. Jim swooshes in with wacked-out schiz so it all sounds like the fire that will inevitably flare up when you fail to clean the lint filter in the dryer.
“NYC Ghosts & Flowers”—Allright, enough. We aren’t fucking around anymore. Put that goddamn magazine down and throw your dispassion to the wind. This is the epic tale of dragons and fire in a centuries-long battle for domination, except the dragons are poets and they’re breathing out drugs and it runs eight minutes. For the second straight LP, LR takes the gold, crafting an engrossing tribute to the artists that the entire album sought to honor in the first place. His readings are meaningful, like every line that escapes past his lips sets off white-hot flashes throughout his limbic system. Contrast this with Thurston’s detached, superficially descriptive stanzas on “Small Flowers Crack Concrete.” (Both songs, interestingly, reference mass arrests.)
“I last saw you alive/Inclined to thrive.”
Always puts me in mind of small rooms that are almost totally dark, save for some natural light peeking in from the outside world, occupied by people born with a perception so profound it renders the standard routine of human survival useless. So they’re just in their space, waiting for a friend to tell them a story that they can spit back out to a world that will, at best, grasp a third of the significance.
The climax is nothing less–or more–than the dirt filling in a hole, stealing away the light, sucking away the breath, and stilling the heartbeat, preparing the soul for transmigration.
On the “old” sonicyouth.com forum, this track won the honor of Greatest SY Song Ever. I miss that fuckin‘ board sometimes. So disorganized and glitchy.
“Lightnin‘”–Kim on trumpet? Thurston mating a bike horn with his guitar? This should be–should be–a must-hear, a never-skip, a brain-frazzler, a toe-curler, a teeth-loosener.
It ain’t. It’s good. It’s there. Live they would go the shit off on it, and when possible, soul-scatters like Mats Gustaffson and William Winant would aid and abet the Sonic cause, propelling the basic idea into the stratosphere. As a hint, a promise, it really had no place on an album, much less the last track. This ball don’t bounce. It squiggles and squeaks, and I’m sure some alien canine’s head began to vibrate, but it just makes me wanna throw in a bootleg from 2000.
I don’t give letter or number grades to these albums, because doing so prejudices the readers perception of the review before they start word one. If I did go by either system, though, I sure as sloppy pig shit wouldn’t give NYC Ghosts & Flowers a “0.0.”
Sadly, Pitchfork’s review is inextricably linked with the album even ten years later. The utter gall, the sheer audacity of this Bread the Crescent Rolls, this hack with no saw. A zero means nothing, empty, devoid of anything redeeming. And that, sonic friends, is ludicrous. “Free City Rhymes” and the title track on their own assure nothing less than a 5 of 10 (again, if I was so inclined). The album’s most grievous sin is not being poor, but being average. The most scathing indictment in the whole P-fork review is of the author’s own taste. If you purport to have enjoyed the music of SY in the past, yet fail to glean the beauty of either song I just mentioned…but you know something? I guess someone could say the same thing about me and this review? How could I just adore A Thousand Leaves but be so unimpressed by this record? It’s a ponder.
This is not the only thing wrong with the review. It is the bane of the music journalist to constantly reference the universal “we” and “our.” I? Use “I.” I would never presume; presumption of collective opinion indicates insecurity in your opinion. That ad populum stuff is for the lazyboned. I stand by my writing till the cows eat the moon cheese.
You may very well adore this album. You may find “Small Flowers Crack Concrete” mesmerizing and artistic, a grand example of Thurston Moore’s inextinguishable punk spirit. You may feel that Sonic Youth utterly lost the plot after this album and have yet to retrieve it. You aren’t “right” nor are you “wrong.” You, like me, just “are.” Some folk can’t handle purgatory. They’re the ones who vomit out self-serving articles full of snark, pointless pseudo-analysis, and flat-out prevarications and libel.
It’s all gracious, y’all. Living the Sonic life means: step up, bare yourself and only yourself, and don’t fucking lie. Three steps that once taken mark out the path to a bliss you can walk in and out of at will.
I didn’t give up on Sonic Youth even after being sorely let down by NYC Ghosts & Flowers; because even their failures contained more hints at success deferred than the triumphs of most other bands. Because not everyone is always beautiful when appearing naked. Because they don’t lie.