A Token of My Extreme: Sonic Youth- Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols (1983)

Neutral Records; February 1983


Ah Sonic Youth, everybody's favorite indie touchstone. They were always the Rolling Stones to the Pixies' Beatles--a bit more raw, a lot more down 'n' dirty and loose in their noisy explorations of the rock form, and lyrics that, while not necessarily any more meaningful or less marred by irony, are a lot darker and snarkier than Frank Black's quirky musings. What they lacked in consistency across entire albums, they made up for in iconic cuts ("Teen Age Riot," anyone?) that captured the zeitgeist of underground music. And that's just about where the connection to the Beatles/Stones dichotomy ends--Sonic Youth have had a much broader, more adventurous career over the course of fifteen LP's and God only knows how many EP's, limited releases and side projects than just about every other long-running band in the past 30 years; and while Mick and Keith have long since degenerated into fogey cliches of their younger, more feral selves, Thurston Moore, Lee Renaldo, Kim Gordon and Steve Shelley in their fifties are more than capable of blowing just about any retirement-age rock star not named Lemmy Kilimeister off the fucking stage.

While sometimes panned by naysayers as undeserving hipster darlings, SY have more than paid their dues. Just look at that discography--the Evol/Sister/Daydream Nation trilogy is still one of the most celebrated runs of "alternative" music (back when that term actually fucking meant something), and early '90s records like Goo and Dirty and the later Murray Street and The Eternal are all models in how to combine accessibility and tighter songwriting with the same famous feedback-heavy, experimental textures of their old work.

However, that band is not the Sonic Youth of Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols.

Rewind to 1983. Still fairly fresh out of the New York underground art scene and avant-garde ensembles like Glenn Branca's guitar orchestra, and playing alongside fellow No-Wave freaks Swans, SY was a band that would scare the shit out of parents, critics (Rolling Stone writer and massive dildo Robert Christgau was an early hater), and corporate radio alike with their disemboweling blasts of sturm und drang.

Perennially underrated duo Moore and Renaldo would commonly shove screwdrivers into their cheap guitars' frets, beat the strings with drumsticks, and play in the most unconventional tunings imaginable to produce swarm-of-pissed-hornets feedback and church bell-like timbres entirely foreign to guitars before or since (best showcased in the opener "(She's In A) Bad Mood"). The lyrics were frequently stream of consciousness, chanted or screamed over the head-shearing, metal on metal racket; and while SY's vocalists Thurston and Kim were never what'd you call particularly "tuneful," here both are blatantly confrontational and atonal, well suited to the lo-fi artfuck quality (and notably, Kim's off-key delivery sucks a lot less in this context). The end result is hair-raising, tense and moody, like some dark pagan ritual. In particular the horror movie crawl of "Protect Me You" might be one of the creepiest things they've ever done.

Yet despite the defiantly anti-commercial trappings of this release, Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols probably serves up one of the best hits of furious punk energy in the entire SY canon, an energy that was sadly diluted from Bad Moon Rising on. With songs generally limited to around the three to four minute mark, the pre-Shelley tribal thump, and the dirty guitar-torturing, bass-heavy aesthetic, you could probably bang your head or pogo to a good portion of this. Especially the cracked-out anthems "Inhuman," "Brother James," "The World Looks Red," and "Kill Yr Idols," all capable of shredding wallpaper from three miles. Of course, this is also the record with an absolutely BLISTERING cover of The Stooges classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on it, shrieked to great anarchic effect by Kim, so all told the punk vibe makes sense.

While Confusion Is Sex/Kill Yr Idols might pale a bit next to the peaks of more mature and fully realized albums like Sister and Daydream Nation, its primitive, art-damaged sonic adventurism is essential to an understanding of SY's development into the DIY/indie icons they are now. Plus it rocks the fuck out in its own viciously dissonant blacked-out fashion, and everyone could use more rocking.


Unless your tastes already lean toward the sonically unfriendly this isn't a good intro to SY, no sir. You will want Sister or maybe even Dirty long before you get this one, and even then the snide hipster vibe that unfortunately characterizes a good percentage of SY's work may be an impediment to enjoyment, so take that into account. Some knowledge of early SY contemporaries Swans or Big Black (both of whom are pretty damn extreme and impressive in their own right) can't hurt your chances with this record either.



  1. I just want to let you know that this is one of my favorite albums of all time, but I've never been able to organize my intense feelings for it enough to right a review. thank you for writing this.

  2. No problem. I love this album too, it's probably my second-favorite SY album after Sister.

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