Album Review: Thurston Moore – By The Fire

[Daydream Library; 2020]

It’s that familiar image of the old writer, in the autumn of his years, standing by an open window, smoking, before he sits down by the typewriter to start another story. It’s the painter who sits in front of an empty canvas, red wine bottle in hand, standing up to grab a brush and go through the motions. The film director who goes on-set early in the morning, passing by the costumes, the empty crew chairs, the abandoned sets. There’s something about the image of great artists in their autumn that is incredibly appealing. A case could be made that grounded, happy people don’t deliver works of urgency, that they lack the euphoria of somebody who’s just accessed their muse, but that’s a tired and, frankly, quite outmoded perspective. While it’s true that some artists lose touch of the zeitgeist, most great artists are able to reframe their interests according to the palette time offers them.

To be honest, Thurston Moore never seemed like the sort of guy who could run out of ideas. Whenever Sonic Youth, the behemoth revealing itself at the tail-end of the no-wave era, lost the touch (and according to critics, they did a few times), they were quick to bounce back with their next album. Many of their prominent duds would reach acclaim later on, anyway.

After the band’s unfortunate dissolution, Moore was able to further experiment with the sonic landscapes provided by art rock’s palette. That made for a wide array of releases and ventures stretching far beyond the ‘rock’ label. It also meant that Moore’s output tended to stretch into progressively more intellectual depths. It’s hard to follow all the roads Moore takes – not just because there’s so much of it, but also because some of it is more exciting to observe than to listen to. Being present during a loose live session of guitar improvisation can be exhilarating, but who sits down to listen to 50 minutes of repetitive feedback orgies? This is not meant as derision – there’s simply not a very large audience for that kind of stuff.

Thus it’s interesting that Moore’s latest, the gloomily titled By The Fire, is almost like a bit of a mixtape. In a way, the album marks an introduction point to Moore’s broader work I’m sure the ‘kids’ will appreciate: it ventures down all of his familiar trademark roads, without becoming tiresome, allowing newcomers to choose which one to take. At the same time, it’s clearly rooted in Sonic Youth’s aesthetic canon. “Hashish” recycles the vocal melody of their 1998 song “Sunday”, while “Breath” takes four minutes of build up to settle into a chugging, Kraut-like rhythm, before making way to more pristine textures, the likes are familiar from 2006’s “Incinerate”, ultimately settling into a barrage of noise. The 12-minute long “Siren” also manages to hold its own, with its core part – almost a ballad – following a seven minute ride through guitar and drum textures fans of Moore have become accustomed to.

Maybe it’s the fact that these songs, which retain familiar approaches and aesthetics, still manage to sound better than so much of what the current rock landscape has to offer which helps By The Fire. Or maybe it’s that Moore’s poetic understanding of his instrument allows him to access beauty that eludes younger musicians. Tracks like “Calligraphy” and “Dreams Work”, which are built solely on guitars, indicate as much: both are of a sober, poetic beauty rarely found in current day rock.

Moore still manages to be a little indulgent here and there. “Locomotives”, which stops just short of the 17-minute mark, isn’t bad, but a little literal when it attempts to recreate actual locomotive sounds. “They Believe in Love”, while fulfilling its dissonant ambitions, somehow lacks the punch of Moore’s darkest work. And as much as it seems blasphemous to question Moore’s skill when it comes to noisy improvisations, the 14 spacey minutes of “Venus” somehow feel misplaced as the album’s closing salvo. It’s a fine showcase, but it’s not something to come back to often.

Mostly, By The Fire seems to provide a counter-position to 2017’s Rock N Roll Consciousness. Where that record seemed to move through similar patterns of psychedelic guitar solos, Moore’s newest outing is more relaxed and almost humble in its ambitions. It’s a shame that the 82 minute runtime will likely scare some more impatient listeners off, and maybe dividing the record into two projects could have streamlined things a little more. But it became clear a long time ago that Moore isn’t trying to prove himself to anyone. His continuous work positions him as the Bob Dylan of the alternative rock era, and By The Fire sums up every aspect of his artistry.