Goo might be a breakthrough for Sonic Youth and for the record industry. It’s a provocative album, but it’s also inconsistent and sometimes annoying.
The group is a legend of the New York — and, more recently, international — underground. Much of what it plays is sound that some might classify as noise. But its sixth and most recent album, Daydream Nation (released in 1988), was a swirling triumph and attracted a large new audience. So now Sonic Youth has signed with a major record label. That’s logical. But it’s also weird. Hearing a band with such an uncompromising reputation on pop radio would be infinitely stranger than seeing Twin Peaks on network TV. In effect, Sonic Youth’s new record company is betting that some large part of the American public has undergone a drastic change in musical taste.
The band, meanwhile, has said that it now feels friendlier toward pop. It doesn’t mind if its songs sound more like conventional rock & roll than they used to — though only up to a point. The almost-title song of the new album, ”My Friend Goo,” might be an exaggerated imitation of a dumb Top 40 hit: ”The boys go, ‘Hey, Goo, what’s new?’/My friend Goo just goes ‘Pee-yoo!”’
Later in the song there’s an instrumental break in which the band’s guitars sound as if they’re starting to whirl into orbit. This impressive interlude suggests that ”My Friend Goo” has some deeper-than-obvious significance, but what this might be is hard to figure out. And that’s the problem with the album as a whole: The music keeps straining at meanings that are larger than a pop-song structure can contain.
The simple cuts work best. ”Tunic (Song for Karen)” evokes a floating, surrealistic vision of the late ’70s pop star Karen Carpenter in heaven, greeting such new friends as Janis Joplin and Elvis. More serious songs are disappointing. ”Disappearer” is meant to be an ecstatic vision of interstellar life, but it doesn’t sound especially ecstatic; its rock & roll construction keeps it earthbound. The band soars only when it cuts loose and howls, as in a lengthy postlude to ”Mote,” or when it imitates roaring engines, as it does with great good humor in ”Scooter and Jinx.” Daydream Nation was an ”A” album. Goo sounds comparatively musclebound. Sonic Youth hasn’t yet found a way to let the power of its music come fully alive within the limited boundaries of simple, short pop songs.