The no wave scene in 80s New York did not owe a lot to southern rock or roots rock of any kind, even punk was growing too close to conformity for them, yet Sonic Youth decided to nab the name of a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune for their 1985 sophomore album, ‘Bad Moon Rising’. The similarities between the bands end at a distaste for hippies, but a name that vivid begs for content to represent within the music. CCR used a timeless country rock arrangement to allude to the apocalyptic desperation felt surrounding the Vietnam War, initially singing about a general sense of dread around devastating weather and climaxing in the third verse’s admission of human guilt.
One eye is taken for an eye
Sonic Youth’s Reagan-era brand of dread exists in a different place from CCR’s: where Creedence’s is of a natural phenomenon of evil looming, Sonic Youth sees the structures of society as skyscrapers built on false foundations – destined to violently collapse in on themselves. Rather than an observer of catastrophe, they inhabit the spirit of a gear in a faltering machine. After the intro sets the droning, feedback-saturated scene, Brave Men Run (In My Family) finds the archetypal brave man to be a coward in repetitive verse. He courageously gives his life for himself, leaving a lonely dreamer adrift in an industrial sea. Society is a Hole is similarly concerned with the personal victims of the industrial mass, not giving into the immature angst its title comes close to suggesting. ‘Society is a hole,’ is not a soundbite or bathroom wall scribble, it is a confused last resort, trying to reconcile the impossibility of living outside society even in rejecting it. Lyrics jump back and forth between sweeping cries and visceral description as our narrator tries to separate himself from what he is a permanent part of and servant to.
The entire album is a slow crescendo to two of the final songs, I’m Insane and Death Valley ‘69. The guitar and bass lines on the former are as sinister as it gets, providing an ominous backdrop for the stream of unconnected phrases that form the lyrics. Though just as repetitive and droning as the other songs up to that point, the constant drums allow it to become a pointed catharsis. In terms of catharsis, however, no song on the album comes close to Death Valley ‘69, a Manson murder tale finale delivered right after the short Justice is Might and featuring Lydia Lunch, the queen of no wave. Opening with a shriek, the release of the tension which permeated the seven previous tracks is here. The song paints this murderer as operating in reaction, trying to ‘get there’ despite the hollering of his victim in the trunk. He revels in the now, Sonic Youth would like to be able to, transporting themselves back in time to gain the ability to detach from social structures. Of course, the horror comes in the truth that in the wake of their obsessiveness to escape, they become a force of evil themselves.
The brutally nihilistic view of industrial society is representative of the no wave movement as a whole, but the music itself departs from much of the other music from the scene. This is most obvious in the guitars, rather than the violent, aggressive bursts of Swans or Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, they are blades of light, forming cascades of repetitive, fluorescent noise and feedback. Harmonics and brittle high notes are strewn in flowing waves between constant, grounding bass lines. The setting of an urban hellscape is so important that the songs have to melt into each other to preserve the immersion, collapsing into feedback interludes that are deformed into the skeleton of the next track. It is an album obsessed with the cataclysmic personal turmoil of daily life, and through that search for a separation between the individual and the whole reaches a spiritual state rarely even hinted at in punk.