Artist: Sonic Youth
Released: May 1st, 1986
Highlights: Tom Violence, Shadow of a Doubt, Starpower, Expressway to Yr. Skull
There are, quite naturally, plenty of elements to be found in “EVOL” – Sonic Youth’s third album – that can be easily linked to pieces of the two full-length releases that preceded it: “Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising”. The guitars, whose sounds expand and hang in the air for a while like a thin mist, present a delicacy in their physical manifestation that heavily contrasts with the uncomfortable feelings their atonal essence gives life to. As a consequence, the instrumental backing of the album’s tracks becomes shapeless, mysterious, and looming; the kind of material that could be employed as the musical basis of a psychological thriller that takes place in an urban, dirty, and industrial dystopia. And on top of those pieces lie vocal performances that are bold in their cold sloppiness, using partial indifference as a pathway to artistic value.
Yet, despite those glaring similarities, if there is one turning point to be found in the career of a group that – through thirty years, fifteen studio albums, and numerous labels (both big and small) – remained true to their alternative roots, “EVOL” is certainly it. The work marks the departure of drummer Bob Bert and the arrival of his replacement, Steve Shelley, which would stay with the band until the end of their run. And although it is hard to say how much that new addition contributes to the leap that is taken, as “EVOL” seems to be the natural conclusion of an evolutionary arch that was already relatively visible in its two predecessors, the fact of the matter is that a lot of that transition goes through Shelley.
“Confusion Is Sex” and “Bad Moon Rising” were morbid, mean, and menacing like a film depicting horrifying madness that threatens to break through the screen and drag listeners into its downward spiral towards insanity. “EVOL” is not too different; but, in it, the noise of Sonic Youth gains notable muscle. Where in their first two albums the band was prone to getting lost amidst their unique craft, with the quartet going on to produce many songs that degenerated into aimless attempts at creating dark atmospheres through racket; in “EVOL” the group emerges as a more focused entity. Instead of drifting out dully into the ether, their more experimental hours are anchored to the ground; meanwhile, their ability to construct tracks whose structures have a more traditional lean – which do so without ever abandoning their noisy edge – is more explored.
“EVOL” is, as such, the moment when Sonic Youth realized that their relentless desire to challenge the limitations of guitar music should not bar them from looking at the possibilities that reside in the more straightforward pop approach. It is a record that proves to the band as well as to their followers that pushing for abrasive tones, aesthetically unpleasant tunings, and weird distortions are not mutually exclusive with embracing the power of good hooks; and, in that process, “EVOL” shows that the extremist and confrontational rejection of conventional rock and roll values captained by the no wave movement – in which Sonic Youth was born – could be tamed into an excellent middle ground.
The record opens with a triple punch that immediately announces Sonic Youth has changed for the better. “Tom Violence”, “Shadow of a Doubt”, and “Starpower” are not just the finest tunes the band had coined up to that point; they are also testaments to how Moore, Gordon, Ranaldo, and Shelley could embrace sheer catchiness without losing their personality. By far the poppiest points of the album, they are fully developed pieces that merge immediacy and experimentation. In “Tom Violence”, sandwiched between segments with beautiful ringing guitars and a fantastic melody, there is a gripping instrumental break that disintegrates before slowly springing back to life. The delicate whispers and picking of the dreamy “Shadow of a Doubt”, Kim Gordon’s signature song, are interrupted by a nightmarish slice of noise that has the singer screaming in the background as if trying to escape from perturbed sleep. Finally, “Starpower” catches a hold of its racket to alternate between occasions when it drives forward in punk rock fashion and instances when it becomes abstract.
At the same time, though, “EVOL” holds enough room for Sonic Youth to go purely experimental, and in those cases the band also displays notable growth; particularly in how they are – almost always – able to steer clear from pointless indulgence. Boasting spoken vocals that seem recklessly thrown over its fantastic backing track, “In the Kingdom #19” recreates a car crash. “Green Light” flirts with pop when it opens with Moore singing a hypnotizing melody, but quickly ventures into noise. “Death to Our Friends” is an angry and fast-paced instrumental. “Secret Girl” is half a weird intro filled with dull sounds and half a fantastic recitation of poetry by Kim Gordon, who does so over a simple but touching piano loop. And “Marilyn Moore”, the album’s sole misstep, has bored and irregular vocals by Moore, which match an equally uncertain instrumentation.
Appropriately, the catchy and the experimental sides of “EVOL” meet in perfect harmony to give birth to the record’s culmination: its closing track, “Expressway to Yr. Skull”. Clocking in at seven minutes, the song starkly opposes the rest of the album, which delivers its contents in relatively brief spans. “Expressway to Yr. Skull” uses a format, of which “The Diamond Sea” is likely the best and most extreme example, that Sonic Youth would go on to tackle multiple times during their career, as the tune grabs a melody many pop songwriters would have killed for, uses it for a small amount of time, and makes a sudden turn towards the land of lengthy musical freak-outs, essentially pushing the formula of “EVOL” to its utmost limits before the record slowly decomposes and comes to a close.
Although a surprisingly strong effort by a band that, slightly more than one year earlier, was clearly looking for solid footing, “EVOL” ranks among Sonic Youth’s best efforts without quite making a serious run for the top spot. Almost entirely free of instrumental frivolity, it still falters in lyrics and vocals, two areas which – for many – the band would never exactly nail, but that would nevertheless see clear evolution in the following years. Yet, as the muscular backbone of their tracks would start gaining notable strength with the follow-up, “Sister”, and as the substance in the band’s songwriting would also increase, “EVOL” is a unique middle ground between Sonic Youth’s purely atmospheric beginnings and the rest of their career, which would be more firmly grounded on the alternative scene. And, in that sense, it is a key – and thoroughly enjoyable – moment in the history of all kinds of rock that see noise as an integral part of their constitution.