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Sonic Youth - Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are publishing new reviews of five important Sonic Youth records, each one a pivotal moment in the career of one of the most exceptional and historically influential bands.

Sonic Youth’s eighth full-length album represents a blind spot in a career with otherwise pretty clear markers. In 1992, they released Dirty, which contained “100%”—a breathtakingly catchy sorta-hit that managed to distill everything great and weird about the band in two-and-a-half minutes, even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of the contemporaries they nurtured. It was their “Cannonball,” in other words, or it could have been, if MTV played it more. By 1995, they’d release an album best remembered for containing a song nearly as long as a sitcom without commercial breaks.

In between was Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, which resisted the relative concision of 1990’s Goo and 1992’s Dirty but still bore the whiff of commercial expectations. Released a month after Kurt Cobain’s suicide and in the middle of a messy alternative-rock culture explosion that Sonic Youth helped usher in but never particularly wanted for themselves, the album was shaggy by design—a concerted effort to loosen up after the rigor of previous studio efforts. You can’t judge an album by its cover and yet: Daydream Nation, Goo and Dirty boasted artwork by Gerhard Richter, Raymond Pettibon, and Mike Kelley, respectively—textbook examples of the band’s essential role as conduit between the underground and the mainstream. Experimental’s packaging, meanwhile, was hastily assembled by an in-house designer at Geffen. Everything about the album reeked of ambivalence.

“We wanted it to be less rock,” Kim Gordon said in David Browne’s Sonic Youth biography Goodbye 20th Century. “Dirty was pretty much the pinnacle of that. I guess we were really disappointed in the label that they didn’t get MTV to play the record. Or we just felt, ‘Well, we’re just not that sort of band anyway.’” Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star is about the limbo between begrudging aspiration for pop success and the relief in discovering it was never meant to be. This isn’t just subtext: “Screaming Skull” shouts out the Lemonheads, Hüsker Dü, and Superchunk, dazed that their albums could be purchased at an SST Superstore on the Sunset Strip.

It is hard to hear, in hindsight, how the album is “less rock”—there are all manner of guitars doing things that seemingly only Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo knew how to make them do. “Starfield Road” is a burst of controlled mayhem that gets in and out in barely more than two minutes. Buzz Bin-worthy single “Bull in the Heather” and “Skink” are Kim Gordon at her Kim Gordon-est, the former enlisting both Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and one of Steve Shelley’s most infectious beats.

Sonic Youth’s lyrics are generally afterthoughts compared to their acrobatic dissonance, but one album after “Youth Against Fascism,” Moore’s “Androgynous Mind” and “Self-Obsessed and Sexxee” nailed the current social and political moment with 25 years of foresight. The album sold nearly as well as Dirty, which was enough to keep the band in Geffen largesse for years to come, but not quite enough to give the cultural cachet of its three predecessors or even some of the band’s later-career gems. The album is a half-step between the relative restraint and catchiness of the trifecta of Daydream Nation, Goo, and Dirty and the fuck-it experimentalism of A Thousand Leaves and NYC Ghosts and Flowers, and doesn’t feel like it ever quite plowed a lane of its own.

Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star was also the first Sonic Youth album the band didn’t tour behind, which could not have helped its slippery legacy; Gordon gave birth to her and Moore’s daughter Coco soon after the record’s release. By the time 1995’s Washing Machine came out, the band was headlining Lollapalooza and openly grappling with its place as elder statesmen of a scene they both indelibly influenced and wanted to distance themselves from. In that sense, an album marked by ambivalence may have been a definitive statement after all.

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