Sonic Youth were one of the greatest bands on the planet, a fizzing, endlessly creative collective that were, by turns, their generation’s Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground and the Stooges (sometimes all rolled into one). They played punk, but not how you’d imagine punk should be, and they evolved through the epic soundscapes of albums like ‘Washing machine’ (still a highlight of the band’s oeuvre) to embrace a post-Beatles melodicism that incorporated, rather than excommunicated, their noise-rock roots. Although Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon frequently came to the fore, at the heart of Sonic Youth’s gleeful squall was Lee Ranaldo, a calmer presence whose fiery guitar was offset by the measured tones with which he delivered band highlights such as ‘mote’. Now, cast adrift form the mothership, he has the opportunity to indulge in his own flights of fancy and on ‘Electric Trim’, his twelfth solo outing, he delivers an unequivocal masterpiece.
Place the disc into the player and the first thing that hits you is the denseness of sound. Despite being nominally acoustic, Lee coaxes a richness from his guitar (and the assorted instruments with which he backs it) that echoes the sound Beck utilised so effectively for ‘blackhole’, the mesmerising closer to 1994’s ‘mellow gold’. Often, subtle electronics are used to provide percussion (although fellow Sonic youth alumnus Steve Shelley is on hand to provide acoustic drums), whilst Lee alternates between beat poetry and those weathered tones that fans will know so well, adding layers of reverb and noise as he goes. ‘Moroccan mountains’ is not only a stunning album opener, it’s a genuine masterpiece that sits more comfortably in the realm of art than entertainment, enlivening the senses and drawing the listener into the album’s comforting heart without so much as a backward glance. It’d be easy to dismiss the track as a freak of creative brilliance, a spark soon to be overshadowed, only for ‘Uncle Skeleton’ (recently backed by an utterly bizarre, ‘Goo’-esque video) to emerge. Similar enough to maintain coherence, yet satisfyingly different at the same time, the track is driven by a taut beat, its twisted-western brilliance recalling the Pixies and Sonic Youth filtered through David Lynch. The result is a slab of perfect pop beamed in from an alternate universe, and it cements the view that this is a work of wonder. The Beatles, a long-cited influence, join forces with Neil Young to provide the starting point for the aching beauty of ‘let’s start again’, another perfect piece of pop music that drifts dreamily across the room like the last hazy rays of the sun, only to be sent spiralling out of control by some entirely unexpected electronica. For ‘last looks’, Sharon Von Etten appears to sweeten the pill, her gorgeous tones adding depth to a song that threatens to overwhelm the senses as Lee’s lilting guitar sees the leaves slowly turn to a gentle gold. It’s hard to put into words the simple beauty of the sparse arrangement and the power of those intertwined harmonies.
Summoning the ghost of early Pink Floyd, the doors and even The Beatles, ‘circular (right as rain)’ is driven by a tightly wound acoustic riff, but accented by rich psychedelic washes and unexpected changes that would not sound out of place on ‘Sgt. Pepper’ or even ‘Piper at the gates of dawn’. However, although the influences may range wildly across rock’s storied backwaters, Lee’s joyous performance fixes it firmly in the now, and before you know it, the eerie atmospherics of the title track segue into view. A poignant track with gentle, skittering percussion, ‘electric trim’ recalls nothing so much as ‘13’ era Blur (an album that was itself a reaction to the Americana that so influenced the latter albums of that band), the electronic elements melding perfectly with the shimmering, off-kilter guitar work. Remaining drawn to vintage psychedelia, ‘purloined’ is a rich tapestry of snatched percussion, shimmering organ and rhythmic synth, the result sounding like Folk Implosion covering Genesis. Rather more straight forward, ‘thrown over the wall’ offers exquisite harmonies, although the atmospheric elements that are Lee’s trademark remain intact. It builds beautifully, adding layer upon layer until it ends in a swirl of reverb-drenched noise. The album ends with ‘new thing’, an album that takes the electronica-infused pop of Super Furry Animals, adds a touch of the Flaming Lips and reimagines it all as a Sonic Youth track – Lee letting his guitar off the leash for a brief, explosive moment, before allowing the track to fade down over the harmonies.
I’ve tried, on several occasions, to write this conclusion. I want to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and allow them to feel the same things I do when this stunning record plays but, of course, it is impossible. Words, when faced with a work of such grace, are only ever to be a poor substitute. Suffice it to say, then, that the record is a mesmerising work of art that is as beautiful, as elegant and as poetic as anything to which Lee has ever put his name. The nearest precedent is, arguably, Neil Young, who has a similar ability to meld poetry, noise and acoustic guitars into a whole that is so utterly beguiling that you feel as if you’re tripping through the vast American landscape alongside him. Few artists have such resources at their disposal, and ‘Electric Trim’, an album that entirely blindsided me, is an easy nominee for album of the year. Rich in emotional resonance and utterly exquisite, the album left me dazzled and inspired in a way that I have not been for some time, and I can think of no greater tribute to pay it. 10