Subtlety Amongst the Abrasive: The Melodic Side of Sonic Youth

A few years back I happened across the music of Sonic Youth. It was during the heyday of downloading and unfortunately the original songs I had, were lost in a computer mishap. I don't even remember what songs they were, giving you an indication of how little the band meant to me at the time. Now many years have passed (many as in 5, I think). I happened to rediscover this band on a whim and only a month or so later Sonic Youth has become a band I rank up with the Velvet Underground as having a tremendous impact on how I view music.

The whim that brought me back to Sonic Youth was seeing that they re released Daydream Nation in a deluxe edition. I love those deluxe editions, and seeming to remember vaguely that that was a killer album by them, I picked it up. Listening to it led to a musical splurge that left me owning 12 Sonic Youth albums from 1983-2006 and a belief that there is so much more to this band than the noisy, post punk, sonic explorations they're known for and might be all casual listeners hear. There are intricate melodies deep within all the fuzzy guitars that might be missed on first glance, and really puts them a cut above the rest. It's that melodic side that has really drawn me in and that's what I'd like to discuss today.

As I said, the album that really reignited my interest in Sonic Youth was Daydream Nation, and so it makes sense to start this discussion with a song from that album. Take "Cross the Breeze". Starting out with an opening melody, it fades into a hyper paced, fuzzed out rocker infused with dissonance and noise rock. At first glance, it might be easy to dismiss this track as just that, but there is so much more. What appears at first as just distorted guitar riffs are actually interwoven melodies that come together and break apart, trading back and forth, even echoing the original opening melody towards the track's conclusion. Although it's embedded in and under noisy, gritty rock riffs, this melodic side of the band is actually quite subtle and easy to overlook if you're not expecting it. It might just seem like standard guitar parts, but the intricacies of those parts, how they interact and they way they fit together creates a melody beyond the notes itself.

Sometimes the melody comes through less directly, like "Shadow of a Doubt" from EVOL. On this one the name of the game definitely is subtlety as it's a very pulled back, quiet song, with a bit of a hypnotic riff. What's interesting though is the way the vocals, that riff and other overlaying parts work together to create a melody. "Cross the Breeze" is more forward (both musically and melodically) where here it's really the sum of everything that creates this haunting melodic movement. I didn't even recognize it as such on the first listen, as it took a while to digest before realizing how those different textures work together to create these sweeping emotional moments.

As we look through the band's career there are moments where it seems as if they're making their melodic approach more their focus, bringing it more to the forefront and shifting away from the more noise drenched compositions. "Tunic (Song for Karen)" from Goo is a good mix between the two, with prominent melodic ideas, laced through it's rock and roll riff. There's a good contrast between the hard rock and this sweeping melody creating something that is not only unique, but is also extremely effective. Later albums like Murry Street and Rather Ripped sound very melodic all the way through as if the focus has indeed shifted, but still not abandoning their noisier elements. It's not necessarily a shift for the better or worse, just in a new direction. A listen to the first tracks from each of the albums I mentioned will give you a good glimpse of the change.

As I said, there are 12 Sonic Youth albums in my collection now. I've only highlighted a few tracks to give an idea of the type of melodic arrangements that exist within their music, but I hear these kinds of ideas throughout many, if not most of their songs. Some songs, and some albums, more than others. but I do hear it, even in some of their earliest works and that really gives this band a depth that might otherwise be overlooked.

I actually think this is the greatest thing about their music. Don't get me wrong, their noise rock experimentation and using layers of sound to create complete sonic landscapes are great too, but it's the melodies that made me want to delve deeper. In fact, I think that really every part of their sound works towards the melody. The layers created a backdrop over which these movements can soar, while the bursts of noise are like bursts of mental static that occur in real life, partially obscuring what is actually happening, before the emotions surge back when the melody is revealed again.

Where it really gets interesting is how on some albums there are vague reflections, refractions and mutations of melodies linking songs to song and creative a "concept album" feeling without necessarily linking the songs. There aren't directly repeated melodies or motifs, but more so repeated feelings, or repeating trends that just briefly recall previous moments.

There's a lot of melodic subtlety contained in the music of Sonic Youth. It's not a subtlety that is overly complex though as when the melody does reveal itself suddenly it's surprisingly more simple, primal and straight forward than some more directly presented melodic ideas. That makes for a another interesting contrast: layered parts creating a vast wall of sound coming together to form something quite simple and easy to identify with on a basic level.

I believe all of these ideas about melody are the main reason I have been so drawn to this band recently and have become so engrossed with their music. I'm not going to claim that it's is for everyone, as like the Velvet Underground and some other "less than radio friendly" bands, it did take me a few listens for it to hit me.

Noise rock especially is like that as by definition it's basically... noise... and that can grate on you if you're expecting something more polished or in the vein of more mainstream artists. That doesn't mean you should dismiss Sonic Youth though as I've found that it's the bands that have taken me more than a few listens to start liking that have become some of my all time favorites. Really, I think a lot of people who might initially dismiss this band as too much into noisy post punk or perhaps even too cerebral and artistic to the point where it's pretentious, might find something within this music that speaks to them if they took a deeper look.

Maybe Sonic Youth isn't for everyone, but if you've grown to love this band as I have and can hear the melodies embedded in their compositions, then you know what I'm talking about. It's a difficult thing to describe to people who haven't heard it because I find no matter how it's phrased, it sounds like I'm really reading in far to deep, like I want to remind myself (and my readers) that it's only a song. It's more about how the music makes you feel than about whether you view it as deep intellectual art. That's a big part of this idea of the melodic side of Sonic Youth because when I listen to these tracks and even the tracks I've described here in detail, it's not an active process that makes the melody come out. Instead it's more about how the song feels, and how it makes me feel that brings it to the for front.

That's a concept that is deep enough to make your brain hurt as it suggests that there aren't written melodies at all, and instead the songs were crafted to create a specific mood and in turn imply and conjure melody within the listener... deep.

I guess an artistic band like Sonic Youth deserves a deep intellectual idea like that on to close this piece. It's interesting, but in the end it's just music and either it speaks to you or it doesn't.

If you're interested in this band, don't hesitate to check out their albums, although it's hard to say where to start. Daydream Nation is a good place and is probably easier than starting at the beginning, but other people might say otherwise. There is such a defined progressing to the music of this band that it might be beneficial to start where they started, but at the same time, their early albums are even harder to get into.

Either way, you can find all their works at Amazon and other vendors and recently many have been released in Deluxe Editions that definitely look worth the extra expense for some of the rarities they include.


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