Monday, April 12, 2010

Shine On.

The Diamond Sea
Sonic Youth
1995 (single)
2006 (Track 11, The Destroyed Room: B-Sides and Rarities)

You might want to settle in and pour yourself a beverage, this is the “alternate ending” version. Go ahead & press Play now, it takes a half an hour.

SY-the Diamond Sea mp3

It starts all YoingYoingYoingYoing, quietly. That’s the idling amp, it white-whispers a phase effect. It will be the guitar’s voice phasing, in a couple of seconds. Drumsticks click a 4-count, & we’re off.

I think it’s fair to say that Sonic Youth have pretty much always provoked controversy & they (maybe) always will. The naysayers tend to fall into one of two principal camps: (1) the reflexively-dismissive (SY= pretentious, mere noise, it’s too damn weird), and (2) the hipper-than-thou (SY= sell-outs, dinosaurs, it’s too damn conventional). The pendulum swings errantly.

For more years than I care to count, I have been listening actively to Sonic Youth. I continue to be challenged & surprised, mystified & thrilled by much of what I hear. I can say without much irony that, maybe, I never really heard any music before I began to learn how to hear Sonic Youth. I hope I’m still learning: how to hear music, how to ignore every ridiculous kind of hierarchy that people want to interpose between the music & my two ears.

Anyway, right here from 0:02 is where the one camp will be heard to complain about rock star tropes & conventionality & whatnot. Because, unlike much of what SY have done (& have historically been understood to “stand for”), this here is a song, with a clear chord structure. At least for the moment: tandem guitar solos introduce what is about to be a sung melody.

0:38 “Time takes its crazy toll,” sings Thurston in one of his typically “trippy” lyrics. The sung parts of the song follow an A/B structure: alternating back & forth between two distinct melodies. No chorus, no bridge. Here’s what he’s on about: mirrors, reflection, diamond, crystal. Is it a drug parable? Adolescent allegory? Tragic love tale? Who cares, honestly. Thurston’s lyrics often seem to consist of a handful of Groovy clichés (here, e.g., dressed in dreams, lonely storm, running wild, love, sand, blood) shaken in a bag, & then arranged strictly according to rhyme. I don’t actually have any objection to that approach. Anyway, three verses, then we move on.

2:25 A little interlude, & then, 2:42, again with the “rock star” solos. This was right around the time SY very suddenly shifted from esoteric art band to Lollapalooza headliner, hence the backlash. Anyway, notice the bass, accelerating tempo at 3:15 & evolving into a new motif, the first indication that what’s ahead will be a serial structure, a series of discrete sections that may/may not refer back to the ostensible “song.” It all starts to stretch out here.

By 4:26, that one guitar is getting pretty noisy. Increasingly-extraneous overtones, drifting afield of any melodic reference, evolving away from the “song,” but back toward what’s more commonly understood as SY territory. At 4:38 it’s the bass, again, that triggers a shift by actually standing pat, declining to make the chord change, & then it modulates sharp. The guitars both are more noisy still, there’s some feedback, shading & modeling the contours.

4:41 A brief plateau (albeit monolithic), then 5:06 one guitar steps out deliberately: four notes descending, almost doorbell-chime tones. The other guitar is howling. The four tones repeat. The snare drum heats up a little. Beginning at 6:19, I think that’s the classic SY drumstick-wedged-in-guitar-frets move: just hitting those strings, bridged so tight they ring like churchbells. Harmonic overtones y compris.

Can we digress a little? Forget about music for a moment? Remember when we talked about Jasper Johns? In 1954, he made that painting & called it “Flag.” It’s nothing but a flag &/or it isn’t a flag at all it’s a painting. “Of” a flag, maybe. Or maybe it isn’t a painting “of” anything. Because it doesn’t re-present in the way a conventional painting does. So it can only be understood as “depicting” a flag if it actually is a flag bc that’s all it is, except it isn’t: it’s a painting. It only sort of is a flag, but it also stands apart & sort of refers to “the” Flag. Remember that?

“Flag” is constructed of the irreducible, coded elements of “the” Flag (the stripes, the stars), but rendered rough, ostentatiously textured, made to operate both as (1) a sensory object and (2) a conceptual provocation.

What if there were art in a similar vein that, instead of connoting “flag,” connoted something like “rock music.” Something that only “sort of” actually is the thing it refers to, but also sort of stands apart & comments on it? Well. I submit that that’s Sonic Youth. The list of coded elements is longer & their relative irreducibility more varied. But I don’t understand SY to have ever set out to make actual Rock music in any sort of conventional way. SY makes art pieces that only sort of actually are Rock songs. But which also stand apart, sort of referring to, connoting (signifying!), Rock songs.

In the present example, I think “The Diamond Sea” actually refers back to itself, as a “song” when, at 6:52, there is a slow-ish reprise of the chords (!) of the song (remember the song?). It’s probably the least expected development at this point after several minutes of what might fairly be called a Space Jam (truth to power, sorry), but there we are. Easing back into the song, the melody, & then 7:12 Thurston is singing another verse. Just the one, though. & still just that little bit slower. We’ve been outside for awhile now, & we’re taking a brief look back in.

Then we move on again. 7:58 begins a lengthy, slow meander. Drifting, if inexorably. By 9:58 the two guitars are shimmering against each other in a sort of auditory moiré pattern. Sporadic taps on the cymbal, the drums seeming to have dropped out almost altogether some time back. When did that happen? Is this a little disorienting? At 12:24 undercurrents are modulating, there’s no real solid ground. Did you ever read about those scientists in the ‘60s, taking LSD in their laboratories & then trying to keep notes? I keep getting lost here, having to go back & start over. Because this intoxicates me.

At 13:34 we’re rousted, after a fashion, with a single high note, then some feedback that builds for a full minute. 14:36 were those the doorbell chimes again? In reverse this time? At 14:46 a glottal stop, & then 14:58 the drums thrash a little, along with some backwards sounds at the periphery. By 15:51 it’s chaos. It’s anchored, but it’s chaos. Notice the texture. At 16:33 notice the texture. At 17:18 the texture. (Shit, for that matter, you could go back & just notice the texture at 14:00, at 8:58, at 4:54, & (not the slightest bit incidentally) at 0:02.) Shifting again into another new phase at 17:42, every image freakishly elongated & in black & white every voice slow motion underwater, a burglar alarm three blocks over. It’s a terrible movie, it’s waking from a dream. I love this part. Notice the texture.

OK but, texture, what?? Well, we can’t hope to hear this the same way we hear normal music, that’s not what this is. In normal music, you listen, e.g., to the melody, the harmony, to the way the soloist both accommodates & challenges the chord changes, that sort of thing. It’s a specific kind of structural interplay that is largely absent here, bc it’s just not what makes this music interesting or satisfying. &/but is this music at all? Is it “just” that art stuff discussed supra? Is it “just” noise? Yes, yes, & yes. It is capital-A Art, theoretically deployed, call it bullshit if you must. It’s also a bunch of old, broken cast-off guitars, tuned all “wrong,” played loud & sloppy & fast. Sonic Youth is pretentious elitism ­& it’s anti-elitist Punk, capital-P no apologies. Naysayers on every side are one hundred percent correct &/but don’t have the first idea how to shut the fuck up & Just. Listen.

There is Music here, but it is mostly not to be found in the rudimentary melodies, the inscrutably-haphazard harmonies, the (often, virtually) perfunctory rhythms. That’s not the intended focus here, it’s just the scaffolding. Here, those are just the coded elements (i.e., the stripes, the stars), just enough to situate you & provoke you. So then what you listen to hear here are the rich (shit, the endless!) variations of texture. It’s not about pitch it’s about timbre. It’s about relative depth, it’s about dynamic. It’s about dissonant tunings at high volume making harmonics that vibrate in your chest. It’s all about the way the thing just feels on a tactile level. You can’t hear it if you don’t shut up & listen. But it’s there for you. It’s fundamentally hedonistic, it’s luxurious it’s sexy it’s gorgeous it’s delicious. It fucking rocks. We don’t have a settled vocabulary to discuss it. This is not what they teach at Berklee, at Eastman, at Julliard. You’re pretty much on your own here. But you got ears.

At 18:41 a whole new palette of sonic colors is introduced. Like if everything were suddenly backwards, played in reverse. It’s an element that’s been hinted-at earlier in the piece (e.g., at 14:58), & now becomes the primary motif. Reminds me of all the mirrors referred-to eighteen minutes ago in the lyric: reflecting back now, turned inside-out. Backwards cymbals crash, feedback feeds back backwards. A rhythmic structure starts emerging, oddly, until at 19:43 everything (again!) degenerates, seems again to burn. Bass “notes” (quote-unquote bc it’s pretty much all melting textures now, all flaming magma) modulating now flat. I’m hearing scattered references to earlier thematic segments, suggestions of a reprise. Then made explicit at 23:14, where the guitar solo of 3:00 is revisited & reinterpreted, briefly. There are only a couple of minutes left, I’m shutting up I’m hearing giants walking.

Early Sunday morning it rained ferocious in my city, but the dog needed walking & so duty called. We went outside in the wet cold. We trudged, bundled, up to the park & around the pond. It was barely light. I wore headphones & listened to “The Diamond Sea” w/volume high, hearing nothing from the real world & feeling underwater. So the world around was as if silent while inside, in my head, it was very, very loud. Like I was deep inside of something relentless & oblivious & unspeakably beautiful. Soundless, ducks landed skimming the water from the air, the dog barked also soundless, in the downpour in the near absence of sunlight everything somehow gleamed. & shined & shined.


  1. This post is great. Seriously great.

  2. Wonderful writing, swimming into the song's heart.

  3. Thanks a lot!

  4. Nice trip on the diamond sea !
    I really appreciate your idea of structure as I am myself a structure-seeker...

  5. words cannot describe that which is intrinsically ineffable