Happy Anniversary: Sonic Youth's 'Rather Ripped' Turns 10

On June 13, 2016

by Jibril Yassin

4 T

“Incinerate,” the lead single off a Sonic Youth album named Rather Ripped, currently sits in the band’s top five most streamed songs on Spotify. There are people who have listened to “Incinerate” on Spotify more than other notable Sonic Youth songs like “Kool Thing” or “Schizophrenia” or “Silver Rocket.” These are songs that fans of the band would likely rank higher on countless “best Sonic Youth songs ever” lists. Most importantly, these are songs that were written relatively early on in the band’s career.

We have a tendency of immortalizing music – and the people who make it – that gets it right straight out of the gate. But attention must be paid to those who continued to innovate, those who quietly chugged along putting out album after album of dope shit. Scoring a song that can comfortably sit in your potential Top Ten of best songs more than twenty years into your career is what dreams are made of. “Incinerate” is that song. It succeeds not only because it’s fantastic but because it’s somewhat of a curve ball. It’s a resigned rocker that goes down smooth from a band not known for that. The catchy guitarwork becomes notable when you consider this band once played a two minute noise dirge featuring baseball bats on Letterman. Harsh is the word with Sonic Youth yet here’s a song where they went full on pop. Thurston Moore somehow sounds both 47 and 22 singing on this. Everything feels perfectly arranged, including the noisy breakdown/middle eight which hits you like an exuberant pause.

 



Rather Ripped isn’t a masterpiece. The best Sonic Youth albums, stuff like Daydream Nation, Sister, et all, made a huge dent in indie rock and beyond with their ambition and musical scope. Rather Ripped doesn’t promise anything beyond great, condensed songwriting. In hindsight, it’s a remarkably consistent album, full of surprises, from a band comfortably in middle age. Ten years from its release, it’s the one album that stands out amidst their 2000s output as an interesting and fantastic entry point to a dense discography.

At the beginning of the 2000s, Sonic Youth found themselves veering far out. Their relationship with major label Geffen, a relationship that had helped fuel some of their best music during the ‘90s, was starting to sour. Due to numerous label shakeups, friends and associates who had built a relationship with the band and helped expose them to a new audience were let go or replaced with suits who couldn’t really understand their sound. Coming up as an independent, underground act in the ‘80s, the bands they brought with them to the major leagues - Nirvana being one of them, were all gone. They were out of step in the new alternative rock landscape and their dwindling sales for albums that didn’t necessarily engage with the new bro-rock mainstream, albums like A Thousand Leaves only exacerbated this.

The biggest clincher was to come: In 1999, a truck of music equipment belonging to the band was stolen. A lot of what was stolen, including specially prepared guitars and amplifiers integral to their sound, left the band no choice but to figuratively start from scratch. The album that resulted from this rebirth, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, was an inspiring mess of Beat poetry and prepared guitar very much unlike anything in their recent catalog. It did not go down well with the general public. Or critics.

Working on NYC Ghosts & Flowers brought the band into the orbit of future band member Jim O’Rourke, whose musical contributions sparked a creative return to form. His influence on follow up albums Murray Street and Sonic Nurse were what brought Sonic Youth back to earth. In hindsight, it’s fitting that his subsequent departure after the tour for Sonic Nurse were what set Rather Ripped on its course. 

I think the last few albums we've done, especially with Jim O'Rourke in the band, were much more complex just because there was another musical element into the band. The music [had] sort of a darker, twisted, complex quality to it," Thurston Moore told CMJ in 2006. "Then when we found out Jim wasn't going to be involved with this record, and I think that it sort of brought us back into a weird situation. Like in one sense, we're gonna go back to the OG style of Sonic Youth."

Popular music history shows Sonic Youth defined their sound somewhere between EVOL and Daydream Nation, with everything afterwards merely slight deviations on their sound (or in the case of NYC Ghosts & Flowers, an extreme deviation). Their biggest musical achievements after 1989 came from squeezing new life out of their alternately tuned guitars and songwriting formulas they had created for themselves. 



Relistening to Rather Ripped, it always takes me by surprise just how relatively clean it sounds. With the members involved in numerous side projects and the SYR series underway, a lot of Sonic Youth’s experimental tendencies fell by the wayside on their latter day albums. The band were also no longer in a position where they could work out songs over an extended period of time - the traditional songwriting approach that benefitted them. Songs had to be written and recorded quickly, with very little work done to refine them afterwards. It worked in Rather Ripped’s advantage, coming off as taut and punchy.

Only two songs on Rather Ripped break the five minute mark. The first, “Turquoise Boy,” features one of the significant noise breakdowns on the album. It’s also one of the five songs featuring Kim Gordon’s vocals. It’s bittersweet hearing these, knowing that Gordon has all but moved on from rock music, opting to embrace her experimental side in her new group Body/Head. Yet she’s on top form, moving away from her past approach of screaming through the noise and barrage to inflect gentle melodies instead, floating over the chiming guitar work found in “Turquoise Boy.” The other, “Pink Steam,” is a slow burner that never quite builds itself to an explosive phase and the song is all the better for it, going through several evocative minutes of guitar work before Moore’s vocals enter, telling a story of lust that touches upon violence and conviction. "Feel your wild heartbeat, lonely lover." He sings. "Open up to me, lonely mother." It’s weird listening to Rather Ripped knowing of Gordon and Moore’s eventual divorce - much of the lyrics on the album speak of love. Moore allegedly began to reference the affair starting on The Eternal and subsequent solo work, but it’s hard to hear “Reena,” a song hinting at infidelity and not wonder if this was where it all began. 

Moore described Rather Ripped as a rock ‘n’ roll record. While it does sound like the album that takes the most after the band’s garage influences, it’s not exactly a record that rocks out the way Sonic Youth albums frequently did. You’d have to go back to their late ‘80s run or the start of their Geffen era to hear Sonic Youth As A Rock Band. This is no Dirty. This is no EVOL. The traditional noise-to-riff ratio is completely upended. There’s very little aggression or dirt to be found, the interplay between Ranaldo and Moore’s guitars less knotty and complex. Ranaldo told Guitar Player that he found himself playing “some serious leads all across this record—which is kind of unusual. Fun, but unusual.” In some ways, Rather Ripped’s streamlined sound hearkens back to the time EVOL and Sister, where the band was just starting to figure out how to amalgamate pop songwriting with their dissonance. The difference is here, Sonic Youth figured it out and were showing off. Instead of disappearing further into the noisy trenches, they cleaned themselves up and surfaced for sunlight.

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