Thurston Moore’s ‘Rock N Roll Consciousness’ in the Age of Trump

Last Saturday night Thurston Moore played Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. The seminal guitarist, garbed in black jeans and a loose white button-down, stood over the crowd handling a battered Fender. Beside him were drummer Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), bassist Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine), and James Sedwards, a “ferocious, high technique guitar player who references Glenn Branca as strongly as he references Jimmy Page”—as Moore described to me by phone last week.

The band is on tour to celebrate Moore’s latest solo record, Rock N Roll Consciousness, out in April. The new LP, according to the pictorial press release, heralds “love between angels, goddess mysticism and belief in healing through rebirth.” It’s the fifth album to bear Moore’s name and the second released under the moniker, The Thurston Moore Group—a foursome comprised of the all-star cast that supported him in Brooklyn.

The highlight of the set was the 12-minute behemoth of an album-opener, “Exalted.” A fey guitar phrase from Sedwards opened the piece, its cadence swung upwards as if in question. In response, Moore and Sedwards settled into complementary thrum, verging their dialogue and outlining the song’s harmony. The composite was a tower of complex chords so luminous and fantastic that it could’ve only come from whatever higher plane is responsible for angels, love, and rebirth.

Sedwards soon seared into the lead, plunging the song into a heaving salvo of noise. Moore followed by offering a mesmeric lyric to the goddesses—”peyote walker, sweet talker, soul stalker, spell weaver…my opium girl”—and the guitarists capped the song by trickling high notes like wind chimes. “Exalted,” wholly, is an anomalous entity able to embody both the darkness and the light, nobly reminiscent of the impressions forged by Page’s 12-string fretwork and Branca’s grandiose guitar symphonies: empyrean, staggering, unfathomable.

Moore is best known, of course, as the singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Sonic Youth—the venerated tag for his 30-year union with Lee Ranaldo, Kim Gordon, and continued co-conspirator, Steve Shelley.

Early in their careers, both Moore and Ranaldo played in Branca’s guitar ensemble, and the pioneering impresario/composer eventually released the first Sonic Youth EP (1982) on his now defunct label, Neutral Records. Through this collaboration, Moore adopted experimental techniques that would become fixtures of the Sonic Youth style and a reckoning to the divide that separates art music from pop music, subculture from mainstream.

For nearly four decades, Moore has inhabited that fluid space between fringe and fad. “There’s a critical dynamic where various subcultures actually become the underpinnings of the mainstream,” he told me. And while he’s still not a “mainstream” artist, his support for those underpinnings has created the legacy of one. Indeed, in 2012, SPIN placed the Moore/Ronaldo duo atop their list of the 100 greatest axe players of all time, a marked appreciation for the tectonic shift they fomented in guitar music—through subcultural streams, no less!

Rock N Roll Consciousness, musically and conceptually, is a chronicle of everything that’s led to that shift. The gargantuan Brancan chords in “Aphrodite.” The Swans-esque moments of doom in “Exalted. The accessible, melody-driven milieu of Moore’s solo canon in “Smoke and Dreams.” The passages of noise rock dissonance, all plastered with the precision of academic experimentalism and the punk-like rejection of tradition and form (the five-track LP clocks in at a lengthy 42 minutes). Notions of nihilism, though, are tempered by a forward-thinking attitude toward millennial music and, most importantly, an essence that is “wholly informed by spirituality”—an idea Moore’s realized has always imbued his music.

“That’s not something I would have articulated in my 20s—or even my 30s—but in retrospect I realize that was exactly what I was doing,” the 58-year-old. “So making a record called Rock N Roll Consciousness is basically a light bulb saying: ‘This is what I did! This is what I do!'”

Rock N Roll Consciousness, in addition to being a proclamation of Moore’s own mode of artistic expression, is an awareness of the kindred souls that have followed similar paths. “It’s a like-minded feeling, regardless of anyone’s attachment to ideology or religion,” he said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of creative people who are agnostic in their purview of spirituality, but they have such spirit. They’re a manifestation of what they don’t believe,” he laughed.

Few careers have touched such an olio of spirit: John Zorn, Yoko Ono, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Hell, Chuck D, Spike Jonze, Michael Gira, John Paul Jones, Merce Cunningham—spirits that move us regardless of affiliation. And this shared idea of spirit as inspiration is fitting. Rock ‘n’ roll is grounded in spirituality, after all; gospel, blues, and jazz—movements integral to rock’s rise—all developed from a style of music literally called “spirituals.” Later, when the bubbly teenage entertainment that was rock ‘n’ roll in the ’50s and ’60s was intellectualized by counterculture, Moore dovetailed its energy into that erstwhile spirit. By leveraging spirit—something we all (ostensibly) have—Moore gave his experimental music an uncanny degree of approachability. He helped make the counterculture an accessible source of positive energy without eschewing its deep-seated sense of opposition.

Rock N Roll Consciousness was recorded last year and primed for release before the results of November’s election. After Trump won, Moore felt the contentious social climate that immediately followed and decided to postpone its arrival until the spring. The album is all about energy and “reawakening in the spring” anyways, so it made sense, and it’s entrenched in “the languages of counterculture” that have always played an important role in political opposition.

Moore spoke to me passionately about an American democracy that’s been “hijacked by a charlatan”—alluding to his own active political involvement. He was at the Women’s March in Washington and at the inauguration day protests that preceded it, and despite the diametrical differences in tone between the two days, he noted an overwhelming commonality: he was still surrounded by a community of kindred souls.

Perhaps there exists our greatest divide: those folks that move through spirit and live around others that do the same, and those that do not. Considering the regressive behavior of the overwhelmingly white, hypermasculinized Trump administration over the past six months, Moore’s new record’s presentation of “radical love” and “positive action” is a political statement, if for no other reason than that it provides a lens into the absence of spirituality in politics. An administration that divides families, reveres greed, and devastates the climate can hardly claim to be have spirituality—or, really, any semblance of consciousness at all. Consciousness has simply become apolitical. So by referencing history while still being conscious of moving forward—past Branca, past Sonic Youth, past notions of some lost “great” America— Rock N Roll Consciousness gives us a formula for continuing this fight, together: history should inform us, but we cannot allow it to define us.

Keagon Voyce is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.

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