On Sonic Youth’s widely-regarded 1988 album Daydream Nation, frontman Thurston Moore sang, “Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’/ And a cord and a petal and a lock, that’ll do me for now.” The lyrics, accompanied by Moore’s charging electric guitar, define the attitude and aesthetic of a band that became so overwhelmingly influential to musicians thereafter—Sonic Youth’s post-punk experimentation and confrontational attitude to the conventions of rock paved the way for a noisy, crafted musical rebellion that many artists felt compelled to join in throughout the ’90s.
But if Sonic Youth pioneered a revolution, then Thurston Moore’s solo album is the quiet after the storm—the future of the band, who last released an album in 2009, is uncertain. Moore will draw from his new album Demolished Thoughts for his Feb. 7 show as part of Duke Performances. His third solo album in 12 years, Demolished Thoughts does not adhere to the Sonic Youth doctrine of defiance. Instead, the album showcases Moore’s undeniable talent as a singer and guitarist.
Produced by fellow rock icon Beck, Demolished Thoughts is a quiet, acoustically-driven work that sounds like a collection of soft lullabies reminiscent of José González or Nick Drake à la Five Leaves Left. Instead of stick-it-to-the-man lyrics, Moore opts for forthright introspection. On “Benediction,” the album’s first track, he creates an atmosphere of palpable desperation with a tale about a girl clinging to love, punctuated with his admission, “I know better, than to let her go.” A hallmark of a great musician, Moore’s ability to produce indelible feelings—in this case, a mournful allusion to his recent divorce with his wife and Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon—makes Demolished Thoughts special and not just another hokey singer-songwriter production.
Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, chose Moore as part of this season’s lineup precisely for his transgenerational appeal and the contribution he has made over the past two decades. “I don’t think you can overestimate Thurston Moore’s importance to contemporary music. Thurston is the connection between groups like the Ramones, or Patti Smith or the Talking Heads to everybody from Vampire Weekend and Feist.”
The connection is also inescapable on Moore’s solo album. The guitar riffs on the LP, albeit more restrained, echo the wild distortion of Goo-era Sonic Youth, providing a familiar backdrop to a new venture. More impressive is Moore’s voice, which has remained strikingly unchanged after almost 30 years of performance, creating an uncanny sense of timelessness—that in his voice we might as easily imagine ourselves in 2012 as 1988.
For Greenwald, Demolished Thoughts wasn’t the surprise that it was for some Sonic Youth fans. He sees the release as the natural progression of a multi-faceted musician with a broad artistic horizon. “I think it was inevitable that this is a place an artist like Thurston Moore would go. Probably, if you are someone that is known for making music that is loud, perhaps you have to get to a place of confidence in your life to make a quiet record.”
Moore’s influence on the landscape of music has as much to do with his ability as an artist as it does with what his music represented at the time.
“Those bands [Sonic Youth and their contemporaries] defined a lot of young people’s identities,” Greenwald said. “Those people were really important to people growing up all over the country as speakers of hipness, sophistication, rebellion or a certain kind of aesthetic…. an engagement with the world that is both artistic and political.”
Though the audience at next Tuesday’s performance will likely be dominated by Sonic Youth fans curious to experience Moore’s new musical direction, Greenwald insists that Demolished Thoughts doesn’t need to rely on legacy or context to be appreciated, but knowing Moore’s history does provide an enhanced experience. “I think it’s beautiful music made by a really talented musician who has something to say. If you come at it with the contextual narrative of Sonic Youth or his divorce…. it has another meaning.”