This Sonic Youth article was written by Jessica Otterwell, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Nick Roseblade.
New York is painted all over this album and with a title like NYC Ghosts & Flowers of course it would be. It’s a short love affair consisting of just eight tracks. The heat, the grime, the buzz, the danger, every element of surviving in the urban sprawl is present. Sonic Youth can never be accused of failing to surprise but NYC Ghosts & Flowers is something of a departure, even for a band where breaking the mould is their signature.
Gaining general critical acclaim on its release in 2000, it was an album born out of frustration. Sonic Youth had had most of their instruments stolen and so they picked themselves up and started again, the incident became their creative catalyst.
As a listener, you’re on adventure with the band. They’re showing you the city, except there’s no room for glamour here. The opener, Free City Rhymes, unnerves your ears with down tuned guitars, making an uneven sprawl, much like the New York buildings themselves. ‘Heat rises, lights through the town’ invites Thurston Moore, when the sounds change to a melodic jangle. It’s as though the way has cleared, as if the rain has stopped, washing the streets. The band open their arms, offer their instruments. Behold, come on in, they persuade.
This album is art. It’s art rock on a grander scale than Sonic Youth have attempted before. It mixes distortion and guitar fuzz with electronics, off kilter samples and for the first time, Beat poetry. That’s not to say that the Beats influence on Sonic Youth hasn’t been apparent previously, however, now it takes centre stage. This may alienate those fans who discovered the band through a t-shirt they purchased in Urban Outfitters but peel back the layers on this album and there is much to discover. For Sonic Youth purists there are touches here of earlier albums, Renegade Princess could be an outtake from Goo.
There is unease on every track, painting ominous dreamlike visions. At once they can morph into nightmares. ‘Small flowers crack concrete, narcotic squads sweep through poet dens’ recites Thurston Moore, on Small Flowers Crack Concrete. It’s as though you’ve been taken to the Bowery and Moore is giving you his best Ginsberg impression. The poetry has its place though and through the looping guitars and electronic beeps, it offers a sobering soundbite of a band who always push to create.
Kim Gordon gets her time to shine as a Beat poet on Side2Side, presumably listing everything you’re likely to find in NYC, ‘rats, wind, meet me on the corner’ she whispers and repeats. The bass pulses, her voice ethereal but sinister at the time. It is a standout moment.
NYC Ghosts & Flowers would seem like a self-indulgent, unstructured mess at the hands of a lesser band but Sonic Youth make it work, there are moments of real beauty here. It’s a wild love letter to New York City and long may the relationship continue.