There are moments in modern life when nature intrudes and reality is transformed. When I was living in New York, a twister skipped across my Brooklyn neighborhood. It was tiny as tornadoes go, but enough to tear off roofs, flood the streets and knock down far too many trees. In the aftermath, we all crept out to survey the devastation, no longer hard-bitten New Yorkers but talking apes gaping at the ruined streets of the Forbidden City.
The core songs of Last Night on Earth, the new album by Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo and his band The Dust, were written in the wake of hurricane Sandy, in a week without electricity or water, but with mercifully little human damage in Ranaldo’s Lower Manhattan neighborhood.
“It was kind of amazing,” he says over the phone. “No matter what anyone had planned or what they had to do, there was just kind of this enforced stop to everything. It was very intense.” But for the prolific writer, the forced unplugging wasn’t without a silver lining: “We got a lot of work done that week.”
Ranaldo was speaking from Poitiers, France, on the last leg of his European tour. Next week, he and The Dust will be playing San Jose and San Francisco as they hit North America.
“I didn’t want to give the impression that this was a concept album or anything like that,” Ranaldo qualifies. “There wasn’t too much to do in the evenings, so I was just strumming chords and sort of improvising some of these songs. I must say the effect of the storm on New York definitely found its way into some of the lyrics as well.”
Disclaimers aside, the songs that make up Last Night on Earth are dreamy and evocative, redolent of that post-adrenaline euphoria, familiar to anyone who’s had a close encounter with fate, when the ordinary is suffused with significance and life seems to be unfolding outside of time.
Although he is the songwriter, Ranaldo makes it clear that the fully realized versions are collaborations, the result of months of rehearsing with The Dust—Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, Alan Licht on guitar and Tim Lüntzel on bass. Together, they produce sounds that are somewhere between droney psychedelia and shimmering jangle pop. The music builds and soars, loops and even meanders in passages that can only be called “jams”—a telltale trace of Ranaldo’s well-known affection for the Grateful Dead. Warmer and more intimate than Sonic Youth, Renaldo’s new band still has an experimental and cerebral side that twists pop clichés and gives an agreeable bite.
I ask what it’s like to be the frontman now, and Ranaldo gives a modest answer. “I have a strong confidence in the songs, and all the rest just falls into place.”
How about carrying the leads?
“[At first] it was a little weird, singing every song in the set…. But I got over that quickly. I definitely like to sing, and it’s been really fun. The singing part of it has been one of the more enjoyable aspects for me.”
As the conversation winds down, I bring up Lou Reed’s death. With CBGBs now housing an expensive men’s boutique and SoHo and the Lower East Side a playground for the ultra wealthy, a chapter in pop history seems definitively over. Am I correct in seeing Last Night on Earth as perhaps an elegy for the gritty bohemia of ’70s–’80s New York?
“Well, I don’t know…” Polite. He means, “No.”
Ranaldo’s response demonstrates the same forward drive that has characterized his 30 years in music. “That’s the way history moves. You know, you have people from any particular period carrying elements of that period forward, and hopefully synthesizing it with new stuff, and passing some of that information on. It’s kind of the natural course of events, I guess.
“[Sonic Youth] were lucky enough to be living in New York at a time of great experimentation … so we had a firsthand view of that. It feels pretty special to have been around during that time. And we’ve carried aspects of that forward with us. … It all gets passed along.”
For Lee Ranaldo, every night is the last on Earth. The past is not a subject for nostalgia or sentimentality, only a source of tools for carving something new from an unknown future. Something more to pass along.
Lee Ranaldo and The Dust perform at the Blank Club on Dec. 10. More info.