The first time I remember feeling someone understood the heavy dread that would sometimes appear inside of me it wasn’t an actual person but an album. I had worked my way through my dad’s record collection, following the liner notes of Nirvana’s Incesticide like a faery tale map for my own purchases, soon landing on Sonic Youth and an immensely intimidating discography, settling on Daydream Nation, because it was the most acclaimed, and Sister, because its mixed media cover art appealed to me in a more immediate way. I didn’t warm up to the former until later, sticking primarily to the first half of its tracklist until I got braver and came around to the darker finale. But Sister didn’t just click with me, it seemed to communicate directly to my gut, specifically the hollow, gnawing feeling contained within, the feeling that would spread throughout me with little warning and make me uncommunicative and isolated, staring blankly, tuning out my environment, wrapped in a loneliness that I wanted to escape from but also embrace.
Sister begins with a near perfect sonic approximation of that mood, tape hiss immediately giving way to reverberated drums, all toms, no cymbals; there is only dense percussive air and empty spaces before a slithery guitar approaches. Punk was my first real musical love and this was somehow its pinnacle and antithesis, devoid of melody and aggression, slack and unyielding, the power coming from its claustrophobic confines, that feeling that despite the openness of the production, walls of sound were going to suffocate you. The feeling I got from hearing Sister begin wasn’t the same as the feeling I didn’t understand within me, but it felt like kin, contradictory and indescribable, sinister and comforting and fittingly the opening track is named “Schizophrenia,” like the band knew the song would serve as a beacon to the mentally ill (and it’s worth noting it, and the entire album, is in reference to Philip K. Dick and the fraternal twin sister whose death haunted him throughout life).
Sister’s sequencing and arrangements also mirror the moods of the depressed, leaping between blitzkrieg manic fits and buzzing lows and so it’s not an album you put on lightly, it’s a work that asks for complete isolation and focus, serving not as a distraction from what’s eating you but a lens to allow you to put it under greater scrutiny. Midway through “Schizophrenia,” the guitars get shimmery and melancholic, leaving room for Kim Gordon to emerge as the voice of the schizophrenic sister the narrator is drawn to. “My future is static/It’s already had it,” she confesses, not mournful but merely accepting. “I could tuck you in/And we can talk about it,” is what she says next, keeping “it” vague so it can be read as her mental state or the state the boy is running from or something else. Except there are no more lyrics after Gordon’s declaration “I’ve got a hunch/It’s coming back to me“, just a guitar squall and sorrowful leads, disintegrating in humming feedback and a cymbal splash. And then the next song is “Catholic Block,” a short punk blast about guilt impeding confession.
In two songs Sister had me pegged and that’s likely a big part of why the album has been a recurring presence in my life, the two opening moments functioning as glimpses at the spectrum of sounds within, “Schizophrenia” the slow crawling avant confessional, “Catholic Block” the volatile manic maelstrom. The tracks that follow in their wake operate between those two extremes, a stereo concept that turns literal on “Stereo Sanctity,” the album’s most frantic moment. Full of lyrical plays on music technology– “hey, gold connections” in reference to gold’s acoustic properties, for instance– it’s about retreating into art, complaining that you “can’t get laid ’cause everyone is dead,” in the unhip, uncultured way rather than the decomposing sense. Here the guitars scream and holler and mate, combining with the lyrics’ mention of hylozoism, the idea that all matter is living in some way, to lend credence to the belief that the art you’re consuming is more alive and vital than the people you struggle to connect with.
The album’s more menacing moments also feature this idea of music as some kind of redemption, a way for the loners and weirdos to communicate regardless of how much they struggle to express their moods and neuroses. The frenzied teen pop ballad “Tuff Gnarl” profiles a hormonal kid with “a fatal erection” in his bed, its discordantly romantic guitar leads prodding at Thurston Moore as he talks up the boy’s lusty fantasies, remarking that amidst the mess and testosterone “the saving grace is a sonic pig pile.” The murderous vampires in “Pipeline/Kill Time” “move and groove and cut loose” in the dark, Steve Shelley’s nonstop drum fills soundtracking romantic wormholes opening between hearts and minds. “Pacific Coast Highway” isn’t as directly connected to musical obsession lyrically, but it equates that other American teen interest– cars– with lust and need, Gordon’s narrator urging a lover to get back in the car so they can drive somewhere, the evilness of the guitar tones and the industrial clangor of the drums getting across the message between the lines.
To quote a different era of Sonic Youth, confusion is sex, although for most of us discovering Sister in our teens it was a very unfulfilled kind of confusion, which is why the album’s tendency to give up on lyrics altogether at the halfway point of most of the songs in favor of a mess of volatile instruments makes perfect sense. When you’re depressed and lonely and eager for physical touch of any kind, eventually words shed meaning and you reach for some other way of expressing yourself. The fulfilled romance of the duet “Kotton Krown” even gives in to this, Moore and Gordon’s vocals dropping out as the instruments merge together, the noise pop equivalent of a make out session, their eventual whispery return a form of pillow talk. Is it all that surprising a whole generation of us looked up to Thurston and Kim as romantic heroes? And that the dissolution of their relationship was a secret national tragedy?
By the end of the album, Moore is shouting “I’m not smart enough” to do anything about how he’s “burning inside,” a phrase that handily fits any number of feelings, from depression to loneliness to angst. If the music hadn’t already connected so deeply with me before that, that sentiment would have pushed me to loyalty, that knowledge that someone from some other time is stuck fighting the same battle, struggling to express themselves, to overcome an unnamed feeling bubbling up within. Sister offers no solution, nothing is really accomplished or resolved with Sonic Youth’s masterpiece, but for all its abstraction and experimentation it’s an exceptionally easy work to connect and relate to, its digressions and anarchy never self-indulgent or masturbatory but instead comforting and ecstatic, all communicating a shared internal mess, giving you a perpetually understanding ally in confusion.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover