Happy 35th Anniversary to Sonic Youth’s debut album Confusion Is Sex, originally released in February 1983 (according to select sources; other sources cite April 1983 as the official release month).
In the late 70’s, downtown Manhattan saw the emergence of a new music scene. It was avant-garde, intertwined with performance and visual art, defying conventional standards. The underground art world that birthed No Wave would be home to several prolific musicians, but none with the mainstream and sustained success of Sonic Youth. Their 1983 debut Confusion Is Sex is a seminal contribution to rock and evocative of a fleeting, powerful time in music.
No Wave, noise rock, or whichever label you chose for them, Sonic Youth was part of a movement that was, for most, deeply inaccessible. The DIY, too-cool-to-care aesthetic only added to their aloof image. The point was to make music, not to be become musicians. What set Sonic Youth apart was their inoffensive image. A comparatively low-key band (when held up against the example of their counterparts), they would become the entry point to something of a higher concept than most music fans had encountered at that point.
The scene that Sonic Youth grew out of was made up of uncompromising individuals, artists with a nihilist view and punk rock values. Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo, the founding members of Sonic Youth, collaborated not only on songwriting, but unique tunings and inventive instrumentation. Gordon had been introduced to the scene, in spite of her relatively quaint suburban youth, through the visual art world and a front desk gig at Larry Gagosian’s gallery in SoHo. Moore and Ranaldo met through the New York music scene, Moore bouncing around a handful of punk bands, Ranaldo playing guitar with No Wave godfather Glenn Branca. Branca would later release Confusion Is Sex on his record label, Neutral.
Confusion Is Sex is a product of its environment. New York City was still filthy, the art scene was thriving, and Sonic Youth recorded several songs in the basement of a downtown apartment building. That building was supervised by Wharton Tiers, the sound engineer and producer who helped Sonic Youth create their signature (literal and figurative) underground noise. The slim, nine-song album, which would later be repackaged to include the follow-up EP Kill Yr Idols, lays the foundation for the Sonic Youth sound that would become instantly recognizable with their growing popularity.
Confusion Is Sex opens with "(She's in a) Bad Mood)," featuring the unmistakable Sonic Youth drone. After a minute-long intro of thrumming, out-of-tune guitars, Moore weakly sings, “She’s in a bad mood / but I won’t fall for it.” The thrumming doesn’t stop, but the song picks up speed, with urgent drums and dissonant plucks of guitar strings. Moore repeats, “she’s in a bad mood,” but this time, shouting. This urgency continues throughout the album. Even in more reserved moments, like “Protect Me You,” there is a sense of panic. The track is proto-industrial and moody. Gordon, in her Nico-style murmur, pleads, “protect me.” It is dark, somber, and perhaps one of the earliest examples of abuse and psychic trauma as the subject of a rock song.
The first two tracks dress the stage as a sonic dreamscape. Familiar chords and catchy hooks don’t fit into Sonic Youth’s world, even when covering classic rock hits, like “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The “Freezer Burn” intro they use to segue into “Dog” has the feeling of waiting for a radio station to come in, patiently, not wanting to turn the dial. The payoff is an angrier, more frightening version of the iconic punk song. If The Stooges’ version has the violence of a drunken bar fight, Sonic Youth’s is the Manson family, gleefully psychotic. In the liner notes of the 1995 reissue of Confusion Is Sex, critic Greil Marcus, an early champion of the band, recalls his impression of the song: “The performance is absolutely unstable, three minutes of panic, and it still bubbles like a witches’ cauldron; it’ll dissolve anything.”
A mod, up-tempo riff ushers in “Shaking Hell,” a song that would often be performed by Gordon in a cathartic fit, moving from restraint to rage. In her 2015 memoir Girl in a Band, she reveals the feminist origins of the song: “Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people.” Gordon lashes out at the subservience imbued in women from youth, ridiculing the parasitic nature of male/female relationships.
“Confusion Is Next” operates as a sort of manifesto for the group, a thesis on truth realized through confusion. Uncomfortable lyrics, atonal instrumentation and even a repeat of the phrase “sonic tooth,” an unsatisfying pun on their name, all reinforce the opening lyrics: “I maintain that chaos is the future and beyond it is freedom.” Moore’s vocals sound like Jonathan Richman trying to alienate an audience. The guitars are shredded and strummed into oblivion.
Other tracks flesh out the origin story of Sonic Youth. “Inhuman” is a rock and roll freakout, predecessor to later hits like “Teen Age Riot” (from 1988’s Daydream Nation) and “Kool Thing” (from 1990’s Goo). “The World Looks Red” is written by Swans frontman Michael Gira, an LA art school friend of Gordon’s and contemporary in the post-punk world. “Lee is Free” is the only track to come from outside of Tier’s basement studio or a recording of a live performance. Ranaldo recorded the song on a cassette tape, capturing the bizarre and personal free jazz soundscape that would close out Confusion Is Sex.
Confusion Is Sex is not enjoyable, easy listening. But it’s important. It’s noisy and raw. The music is wholly abrasive. But the album lays the groundwork for two of the greatest American guitarists, Moore and Ranaldo, and one of the most influential women in rock music, Gordon. Sonic Youth would spend the next thirty years touring, putting out 16 studio albums in total, and would eventually headline major music festivals. They disbanded in 2011, following Gordon and Moore divorce. Since the release of Confusion Is Sex, Sonic Youth have remained at the forefront of the American art rock scene, influencing artists of all mediums beyond their New York City-centric world.