Sometime between the time NYC Ghosts & Flowers redefined Beat Generation—fellating uselessness and al-Qaida terrorists flew planes into the towers, Sonic Youth — or somebody on Sonic Youth's management team — had an epiphany: Why not roll out each SY opus as though it were a summer installment in a blockbuster franchise? Put the word on the street in early spring, roll the disc out in June, then launch a huge, momentum-riding tour.
Given that SY excursions mimic hazy, dog-day atmospheres, anyway — heat-exposure prose unspooling into bouts of sweaty, noisy fret-copulation — this gambit made sense. While The Eternal hews to this post—Memorial Day schedule, it pulls the storied sequel trick of shuffling the deck without actually shifting the paradigm: new label (Matador), new sidekick (ex-Pavement member Mark Ibold on bass) and new-and-improved schtick (all three singers harmonize at times). Draped in what appears to be a swirling portal to hell — a John Fahey ass painting, as it happens — Eternal is Sonic Youth's most self-indulgent album since Flowers. No longer under the corporate-rock whip, they forgo even the appearance of mainstream capitulation, drifting into a water-treading, if enlivened, limbo that shrugs off the (largely) battened-hatch creep of 2004's Sonic Nurse and 2006's Rather Ripped. Ripped ended with rote interview-query murmurs, and the punk-lite "Sacred Trickster" kicks Eternal off with one more as Kim Gordon yelps, "What's it like to be a girl in a band?/I just don't understand!"
From there, we're off to SY's bohemian paradise, all urgent verse-chorus-verse buildups surging into manicured noise-pop gullies. Immediate crowd-pleasers — like the barbed, stinging "Malibu Gas Station," which perpetuates Gordon's celeb fetish by drooling over Britney Spears through the paparazzi's massed camera eye — yield to fare like the drowsy, adoring Thurston Moore ballad "Antenna," the is-it-stalking-or-caring-too-much? snarl of "What We Know" and the sunnysided "Walkin Blue," which finds Lee Ranaldo at his most unashamedly hippie yet. Eternal earns its place in your six-disc changer by degrees, and does its next-installment duty just well enough. You'll laugh, you'll sigh, you'll check for Sonic Youth's next comfort-food ear-flick whenever it's on the horizon.