Graded on a Curve:
Sonic Youth,
Confusion Is Sex

Let me just begin this review by saying this about this album: It annoys my cat. He likes to hang out on my desk, but whenever I put this album on he flees the room. And that should tell you something. Painkiller, Pig Destroyer, Killdozer—he can stomach them all. Hell, he has even sat steadfast through the horrorshow that is Foreigner.

But Confusion Is SexSonic Youth’s 1983 LP debut—unsettles him. Hell, it unsettles me. And I can only imagine it unsettles everybody, including the legendary NYC art noise poseurs who produced it. Which makes me wonder, what’s the point?

Art for art’s sake would be the short answer. Because this is certainly not art for pleasure’s sake or anybody else’s. I know a lot of pain junkies who listen to all manner of free-form atonal jazz skronk, but I do not know a single person who likes this album for the simple reason that Sonic Youth does not want anyone to like this album. It’s a classic example of taking a good thing too far.

Sonic Youth make a few concessions to such things as actual songs, but not many. And even on the songs that don’t grate, the vocals do. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore have one thing in common—they cannot sing. And I do not mean they cannot sing in the traditional “Look at me, I’m Frank Sinatra” sense. What I mean to say is they appear to have an aversion to singing. At least on Confusion Is Sex, they seem to be going out of their way to flunk an audition.

Sonic Youth produces a fractured clamor using weirdly tuned and prepared guitars, and then ups the ante by setting them to fractured song forms that test the very meaning of the word. The results can be interesting and even enthralling—check out the raging caterwaul that is “(She’s in a) Bad Mood”—or positively enervating (the go nowhere, do nothing slice o’ drabness that is “Protect Me You”). “Lee Is Free” is a rather tedious piece of atmospherics that at least doesn’t rub one’s nerves raw; “Confusion Is Next,” on the other hand, is a slow motion example of sprung guitar gone mad over top of which Moore does his vocal best to drive everybody out of the room. I suggest it to no one. And the band lays waste to a great song title on “Shaking Hell,” a dirge on which Gordon greyly monotones her way to nowhere.

Sonic Youth’s live take on “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is cool but its two minutes are hardly worth the price of the LP. And to get to it you have to listen to the interminably dull “Freezer Burn.” And you most definitely won’t want to purchase the album for “Making the Nature Scene,” which reminds me of what PiL might have sounded like had you taken the dub out of ‘em. “Inhuman,” on the other hand, actually gets around to rocking out; it may not be all that, but in this company it’s ace. Boasts a nice groove and some vocals so buried in the sludge they can’t ruin the song. And “The World Looks Red” is also a winner, although Moore does his best to spoil things by vocally splurging all over it. The guitars are great, the song is sprightly, and this could almost be King Crimson or somebody. I haven’t the faintest idea how it made its way onto the album.

Sonic Youth would ultimately get around to tethering their anarchic guitars to actual songs, and the world would be better for it. I’m listening to their cover of Crime’s “Hot Wire My Heart” as I write this, and it’s great. And 1988’s streamlined Daydream Nation is the real deal. But on Confusion Is Sex confusion is king, and chaos reigns.

No Wave was interesting in the way Antonin Artaud’s poetry was interesting; namely, in a purely intellectual way. How does one express chaos? By making no sense. But there’s no making sense of no sense, and there’s nothing to be learned when nothing is communicated. In both cases, the ideas behind the product are far more interesting than the product itself. What we have here are precocious youth making an avant-garde din. They don’t want to show you a good time; they want to make a statement along the lines of, “Art should hurt, and great artist Great Art should hurt a lot.” Which is fine. You’ve made your statement. Now go away.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
D+

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