Last time we spent some quality time with a Thurston Moore record, he’d toned down the ferocity of his idiosyncratic, fractured melodies.
The cacophonous battlefields of yore settled into the more reflective textures of Demolished Thoughts: where guitars previously roared like cyclones, they were gently plucked over the soft, rain-like pitter-patter of lightly-brushed drums. Even the terminal detachment of his hipster drawl seemed more human than usual, as though in the process of being melted by the gentle warmth of the music. The slow drip of wax onto paper – understated and beautiful and if you were willing to sit down for a moment and pay attention, utterly captivating. And with the grim inevitability of any famous band member’s solo records, it was largely ignored. Alt-folk is the last thing anyone wants from a member of Sonic Youth, however great it may be – where’s the noise, dude?
Of course, what we didn’t know at the time was that Thurston was separated from Kim Gordon, his bandmate and wife of 27 years, putting SY in a state of indefinite hiatus. Making a solo record so vastly different to that band’s output effectively worked to wipe the slate clean and begin anew. The backing group assembled for touring purposes – including drummer John Maloney, violinist Samara Lubelski and guitarist Keith Wood – bonded quickly, and by the time of their appearances at the Jeff Mangum-curated ATP last year, hushed acoustics went hand in hand with crushing swells of free-form noise. Somewhere along the way, it became apparent that this was a band in its own right, and the moniker Chelsea Light Moving was adopted. So here’s the album. And guess what? It’s f*cking great.
It’s difficult not to compare CLM to da Yoof. As mentioned, Thurston has a fairly unique way with melody, and these songs – strewn with guitars that burn and mutilate like corrosive acids etching chemical horror into unprotected flesh – are unmistakeably his. Opener ‘Heavenmetal’ seems to have wandered in from the latter days of his former outfit’s Geffen period, doused in world-weary chimes and an earnest instruction to “be a warrior and love life”. Sweet, hypnotic and curiously affecting, it’s the perfect opener. It also proves to be the calm before the storm, as ‘Sleeping Where I Fall’ amps up to more recognisably “angular” (eurgh) riffs; an unsettling tension that builds as the guitars ascend from skeletal jabs to fuzz-soaked whirlwinds over the course of six thrilling minutes. It’s like having incrementally larger chunks of your guts ripped out every time the song embarks on a new section, leaving you fatally wounded yet masochistically returning for more of the same.
Things get even better on the scorching ‘Alighted’, where brittle melodies give way to Black Sabbath-esque moments of heaviosity and a furious blast of sonic annihilation that sounds like your speakers are burning to ashes; thick black clouds of distortion billowing from the fiery chaos. It’s the most thrilling noise he’s created in years, broken up by jagged, adolescent mutters of “I come to get wasted” – a back-to-the-garage sense of primal abandon that belies the structural complexity of the music. Later, he’ll shout “we are the third eye of rock’n’roll!” with a playful grin audible through the rolling din. In other words, he’s having fun.
If there’s a slight complaint about Chelsea Light Moving, it’s that Thurston’s return to Sonic Youth-style noise occasionally feels like he’s operating on autopilot. ‘Groovy & Linda’ could be an out-take from 1994’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star; its crooked groove almost flattened by guitar lines that feel over-familiar. Of course, autopilot for this old head still burns more lumps of imagination than most musicians cram into their entire careers, and it’s fair enough that someone who helped redefine rock’n’roll in the ’80s might have hit upon something of a working formula since then. More of the same ain’t necessarily a problem.
A three-song section towards the end takes up the unexpected theme of poetry: ‘Burroughs’ is self-explanatory, with Thurston growling a veritable fan letter over tumbling roars of searing discord and nagging hooks. There’s a different tack adopted for ‘Mohawk’, as our hero intones a beat-styled poem of his own over an accelerated drone that jerks and soars with hypnotic intent; like Spacemen 3 on a treadmill. The triumvirate concludes with ‘Frank O’Hara Hit’, another typical slice of tense, wonky buzz that’s very much in the Sonic Youth mould. It’s an affirmation of the context in which Thurston wants to be viewed – a combination of punk intellectual, avant-garde aesthete and art-savvy rock’n’roller.
The record plays out with ‘Communist Eyes’, as close to out-and-out punk thrash as he’s managed since SY covered The Untouchables’ ‘Nic Fit’ for 1992’s grunge-inflected Dirty. As one of the catchiest numbers on the whole record, it makes for an emphatic closing statement; bubblegum dumb and red-raw ragged. As sure a sign as you could wish for that energy is still very comfortably in stock chez Moore (not to mention a helpful reminder that his mischievous streak is fully intact) it’s a solid ending to a superb debut. It remains to be seen whether this is merely a one-off or cemented as a long-term project – can this new collective create something as wonderful or enduring as SY’s Daydream Nation? As instantly addictive as Goo? As curiously explorative as NYC Ghosts & Flowers? Or are these unrealistic expectations for four folks who’ve barely started playing together, regardless of what the ringleader achieved in a previous life? Whatever. If this is the beginning of a real relationship with Chelsea Light Moving, it’s a helluva first kiss.