Sonic Youth Gets Back, Public Enemy Gets Gamy

Friedrich Nietzsche, the Greil Marcus of his day, once noted, “There are two tragedies in a man’s life. The first is to have failed to have reached your goal; the second is to have reached it.” Arguments of eternal return aside, Nietzsche seemed to understand how the “world” of music is represented to the public. To wit: “[Fill in name of band], which released three deeply appreciated albums on an independent label, have finally realized their potential on their mediocre major-label debut; they are surely the second coming of [choose one: the Rolling Stones/Hüsker Dü/Marvin Gaye].” And so forth.

Nevertheless, there are those chosen few who come along and, for a short period, anyway, seem to represent the Zeitgeist by upsetting it, artists whose work you got so caught up in you could hear their voices in your head, spelling out your future. Alas, all music hazards that risk. George Harrison once said that rock-and-roll was like Catholicism–get them at 5 and you have them for life. (Which is why I will be haunted by Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” in yuppie bars and sports stadiums for the rest of my life , public relations having rendered the concept of posterity moot.)

It is not easy to gauge the point at which an artist loses that intangible quality of the necessary and becomes merely an artist producing work, good, bad or indifferent. I cannot speak for the Madonna fan who finally puts her bauble earrings away, or the Bob Dylan fan who no longer feels the faddish pull toward fundamentalist Christianity. But speaking for myself, I can say that in the late 1980′s there were no two groups more totemic for a certain type of youthfully withdrawn faux-ruffian than Sonic Youth and Public Enemy. These were bands you didn’t merely want to listen to–you wanted to be them.

Take Chuck D’s Marv Albert-derived delivery, which was so persuasive he could forever alter the meaning of a word as common as “yes.” To this day, it is impossible for me to hear a forcefully implored “Yes!” without the words “The rhythm, the rebel …” from Public Enemy’s masterwork, “Night of the Living Baseheads,” following in my mind. Yes! –mere affirmation transformed into a proposal of transcendental destruction. The rhythm was the rebel as the medium was the message. And he knew this.

Both Public Enemy and Sonic Youth continue to wield considerable influence, if only because they will remain forever young to a Generation X that took the reins of the media about a half-decade ago. Because of this, they can be assured of relentless coverage well into their dotage. Their influence is felt esthetically, too. Smashing Pumpkins is little more than Sonic Youth shorn of brains, humanity and interest. And Chuck D’s sidekick Flava Flav has laid the groundwork for most of the current underground rap today. No Flav, no Ol’ Dirty Bastard (a.k.a. Big Baby Jesus, or whatever).

But both groups have long passed that period where each new release might strike the listener as a catalyst for personal change. What to do with this irrelevance?

Sonic Youth seem, well, relieved, and have released A Thousand Leaves (DGC), their best LP since 1987′s Sister . Sister was, in many ways, the Lamaze for a half-decade or more of muscular geek-rock. On that album, the band turned from its industrial and No Wave origins toward an obsession with youth culture and pop forms, which they began breaking down and casually building up again with a fake and artful insouciance. Starting with Daydream Nation in 1988, their music took on a shimmering beauty that was seductive enough to distract from its cynicism. It also got them a major label deal with DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records, and since then they’ve been toying with the intermingling of their aging bodies and their fans’ TV sets, having gone from warehouse black to psychedelic Technicolor in less than a decade. But the last couple of albums ( Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star and Washing Machine ) seemed … not bad, but unfocused, as the band no longer could assume that its audience was as adolescently twisted as the Mountain Dew ads that pander to it.

On A Thousand Leaves , Sonic Youth has gone back to making music instead of social treatise. Recording several sessions with the Glenn Branca cohort Wharton Tiers, they’ve put out four EP’s (so far), plus this 70-minute album in just the last year. The EP’s are the sort of uncompromising instrumental zing-zang that made the beat-addicted hipsters mutter in boredom at Creative Time’s first annual music festival at the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage last year. Serves them right. It was the medicine necessary for the spoonful of sugar to go down, as Leaves is no less challenging but appears marginally more pop, what with vocals and the occasional (oft shifting) song structure. Simply put: Sonic Youth are doing what they do well, and they are doing it for themselves. An exception would be “Sunday,” the single, which sounds like every other Sonic Youth single since “Disappearer” (on Goo ). It’s their one semicommercial riff, and it has always sounded sluggish and disinterested.

But the rest of the LP finds ways to invert expectations. Everyone gets their prototypical moment. Guitarist Thurston Moore’s 11-minute “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” encapsulates half of the last 10 years of music, from Kraut-ish minimalism to fake hippie-jam. The next track, “Karen Koltrane,” also by Thurston, deals with the other half (nihilist noise and teen-femme transcendence). Bassist Kim Gordon plays her gender-desire games, as usual. A few years ago, her voice started hardening like Frank Sinatra’s on his Reprise recordings, and here that contributes an off-key urgency to songs such as “Wildflower Soul” and “French Tickler,” which almost seems like a trick, as if she were the Rod Stewart of alt-rock. Even Lee Ranaldo seems to have drifted in a bit from the shadows, though the great songwriter is still exiled to a single song (“Hoarfrost”) evocative of monstrous loneliness, as usual. Limiting Mr. Ranaldo’s input is not in the band’s best interest. Now hovering in their 40′s, it’s time, subject matter aside, for them to grow up about this. But with whispers that Geffen Records may be folded by its new overlord, Universal Music International, they may not be given the chance.

Which cannot be said for the resurrection-obsessed Public Enemy, whose He Got Game (Def Jam), the soundtrack album to Spike Lee’s latest film, is one of the saddest coffin nails I have ever had to open my ears to, possibly the least listenable reunion record since the Byrds attempted a comeback in 1973. Not only are the beats leaden and the raps sluggish and bizarrely uninspired, but Public Enemy’s integrity–always one of its shrewdest marketing strategies–is casually compromised. Rap music is being strangled to death under the guise of its own success, and you would think that Chuck D might have something to say about Sean (Puffy) Combs’ loops and Hype Williams’ mere hype. But we all become what we hate, and the Bomb Squad has become Puffy.

Reunited with sonic visionary Hank Shocklee for the first time since 1991, Public Enemy takes a when-in-Rome approach and retches all over us. Frankly, this is weaker than anything Puffy has ever done. True, Chuck wanted to sign Vanilla Ice before anyone else, but looping Buffalo Springfield (on “He Got Game”) for an easy hit? There’s something chilling about Flava Flav referring to good ol’ boy Stephen Stills as “My Man” (even if Mr. Stills did stand up to Elvis Costello when Elvis called Ray Charles “a blind, ignorant nigger”). One track, “Go Cat Go”–a rip-off of LL Cool J’s Def Jam classic “Go Cut Creator Go”–features a weakened version of their patented adrenalized counter-rhythms. A glance at the credits shows it was produced by Jack Dangers of the band Meat Beat Manifesto, and that says more about Public Enemy’s judgment than any review could. Becoming a businessman seems to have destroyed Mr. Shocklee’s mind, and the world is the worse for it. And, oh yes, famed anti-Semite Professor Griff is back, if anyone gives a shit.

Public Enemy is, by definition, topical, so there’s no way it can cultivate irrelevancy in the manner that Sonic Youth can afford to, or in fact, needs to. If only Public Enemy, like Sonic Youth, was happy to disappear into its own noise and fetishes. After all, a decade ago, we did. As Nietzsche wrote, “One must have a good memory to be able to keep the promises one makes.” Public Enemy may not get another opportunity to do so, despite promises of a second album this year. Wealth (or popularity) does not equal influence.

Now Hear This …

Thurston Moore and man-about-the-country Byron Coley have started a new label, K’ey, which will reissue long out-of-print Sun Ra LP’s. Eat them, they’re good for you and good-tasting.