Essential: Sonic Youth – Washing Machine review

by Nich Sullivan

Tantalising overreach, the catchiest hooks this side of Murray Street, and a heaped helping of ‘Kim Power’ – Washing Machine is one of Sonic Youth’s more underplayed, but underrated works

Every person on earth has, at some point, wanted to be someone else. We’ve all had one or more of those days – the ones that make you want to drop all of your emotional baggage in a deep, deep lake and abscond to a place where you become an unmeasured quantity; no history, no relationships by which to be defined, no preconceived notions that expose your bullshit and describe you to a T.

We tend not to follow through on these urges though, as tempting as they may be. In the end, our loved ones and our responsibilities – and a fair amount of fear of the unknown – keep us rooted in our assigned times and places. The thought of starting over simply becomes a bit too much to take on, so we sigh, indulge in entertainment, or food, or illicit substances (to each their own), and our head hits the pillow in the hopes of a better tomorrow.

Around 1995, before the release of Washing Machine – an LP that can be seen as an artistic pivot point for the band – Sonic Youth had a similar identity crisis. Depending on the version of the legend you subscribe to, they played a limited number of secret shows and billed themselves as a band called Washing Machine. Whether or not this happened, and it’s certainly possible in either case, the other version of the history comes straight from the horse’s mouth. ‘For a while we were thinking of changing the band’s name to Washing Machine,’ head honcho Thurston Moore told Puncture Magazine during the lead-up to Washing Machine’s release. ‘Because Sonic Youth has become a brand name.’

At this point in history, the NYC stalwarts had enjoyed nearly a decade of ever-flowing goodwill from both critics and audiences. They had released eight albums since the early eighties, and had not made a major misstep. The band had exactly the right mix of street cred, je ne sais quoi, and authentic cooler-than-thou attitude to transform them into a four-headed juggernaut relatively early in their career. And yet, they toyed with the idea of becoming someone else.

Washing Machine is 100% a Sonic Youth record. It contains what is still their longest track ever, The Diamond Sea, as the album closer. Moore would later paint the track’s length as unsurprising from the band’s standpoint, telling CMJ New Music Monthly that if he had his way ‘every song would be 20 minutes long.’ The cut uses that time to ebb and flow like the titular sea, devolving from a straightforward verse-chorus-verse structure into a maelstrom that pulls it into droning noise and vicious strikes to guitar strings that sound almost like warning bells – it is a herculean piece of art that creates its own horizon and then sails over it unapologetically.

Outside this emphatically on-brand excursion, Thurston Moore seethes with defiantly snarky tough love (Junkie’s Promise), but also coos sweetly (Unwind). Lee Ranaldo slays in his semi-featured role as a vocalist (the dreamy Saucer-Like and the nebbish spoken word tough-guy-ism of Skip Tracer). Kim Gordon offers breathy declarations (Becuz), and punkish snarls (Panty Lies), while also displaying a well-calibrated fragility to embody a teen girl through the sprechgesang plea for an honest relationship with her mother (Little Trouble Girl).

The ways in which the LP departs from the established Sonic Youth®️ formula are more method-based and abstract. Gordon switches for the first time from primarily playing bass to almost exclusively playing guitar, making the record the origin story of the group’s now-signature three-guitar-plus-drums attack. Little Trouble Girl features Kim Deal of Pixies and The Breeders as a high-profile guest star – a trick that Sonic Youth hadn’t utilised very often before Washing Machine. The album was also recorded in Memphis at a studio that Sonic Youth had never recorded in before – another surface-level change that stood to create an outsized effect for the difference in sound. Throughout the record, there seems to be a newfound airiness that springs up between the lines of transfixing solos and the intermingling of instruments and voices. At least a part of this can likely be attributed to the band’s new confidence in their stature and the lack of being compelled to try to outshine any other bands or each other.

In many ways, this album (the outfit’s ninth together) gave Kim Gordon the chance to carve out a quantifiable artistic space for her voice more than she had done up to this point. In looking at her vocal contributions on Washing Machine, it is possible, with only a bit of squinting, to construct a story out of them: Becuz may be a mother looking at her daughter with a new partner and feeling ineffectual when considering their bond (‘I wish I could free you / but I can’t / don’t blow it’). The title track could be from the perspective of the same young girl going absolutely gaga over her new love (‘I take my baby down to the street / and I buy him a soda pop / he’s so sweet’). Little Trouble Girl addresses part of the difficult conversation that must be had when the girl ends up pregnant (‘I’m sorry mother / I’d rather fight than have to lie’). And Panty Lies is the brazen cast-off of her mother in the aftermath of that conversation (‘Hey mom, look! / No more panty line!’). Gordon’s surety as a front person was just one way that Sonic Youth was becoming a new band, or, at the very least, a new and improved version of what it had been.

Elsewhere, Thurston Moore brings hefty servings of wild abandon. His atonal, droning soundscapes take over both Washing Machine and The Diamond Sea, accounting for nearly thirty percent of the album’s runtime in just the jam-tastic outros to those tracks. His lyrics to The Diamond Sea are part lullaby, part psalm, with very little of the jaded antihero we’d come to know. His late-night meandering in lines such as ‘…you shall see / why everything is quiet and nothing’s free’ tips the scales as enlightenment more than it does as empty philosophising, which was an easy trap to fall into in the mid-90’s when Generation X’s posturing was at its most widespread in culture at the macro level.

This brings us to the obvious question: why would a band at, or near the apex of its powers and prowess, want to become a different entity – and one with no history or expectation? It is a sad fact of life that even a history of achievement and innovation can result in tremendous amounts of pressure, and that even circumstances that are objectively good do not always guard against a profound ennui. Sonic Youth had a desire to escape those burdens even as they were fully coming into their own. Whether the desire was half-joking or half-serious, they saw a need to change things up. Washing Machine gave them the chance to evolve from a band viewed as mostly ‘punk’ to one that was considered mostly ‘indie’ in sound if not in label affiliation.

Sonic Youth’s dalliance with a new moniker allowed them to act with newfound impunity. It worked in the same way we can individually enjoy a sense of invincibility when wearing a mask or finding ourselves in a place where we are truly anonymous. When we consciously take ourselves into uncharted territory by hiding or changing our face or name, universes of possibility open up – allowing us to reset the narrative we are living. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be swallowed by a ‘diamond sea’ of our own design and ‘never, never be the same.’

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