The last Sonic Youth album I spent any time at all with was Washing Machine from way, way back in 1995. The Eternal picks up exactly where we left off, though—and that’s kind of a problem.
If any band was about sounding up to the minute, that band was the aptly named Sonic Youth. They were dissonant, they were cool as shit, and, most of all, they were surprising. Even on the post-classic period Washing Machine, they seemed to be trying new things, as when they buried the album’s best pop hook in the 19 minute swathe of noise that was “The Diamond Sea.”
For an avant-band like Sonic Youth, that kind of “f--k you” isn’t a bug; it’s the whole point. You’re there to get set back on your heels, either with the uncompromising but earthy squall of their early albums, or with the way they turned sneering political protest into breathy celebration and back again on Dirty’s “Swimsuit Issue.”
All of which is to say that The Eternal is the one thing that a Sonic Youth album should never be: It’s predictable. Not that it’s a Metallica-level embarrassment—“Leaky Lifeboat” has a pretty, almost classical picked motif; “Antenna” is catchy as hell. But the music doesn’t do anything the band wasn’t doing already 15 years ago. Merle Haggard can get away with that sort of thing because his music is about tradition and fidelity. But Sonic Youth is about something else. And if you can’t stay young, The Eternal starts to sound like a very long and very tedious slog.