Stranded in the Jungle--15

Beauty Lies in the Eye

EXPLOSION. "There's something in the air there makes you go insane... Do you want to see the explosions in my eye?" This is "Beauty Lies in the Eye," a song from Sonic Youth's 1987 album Sister. The sound is dissonant and thickly layered. There's no melody to speak of. The tempo is moderately slow. Steve Shelley's drums keep up a steady beat. Thurston Moore's and Lee Ranaldo's guitars twang in unison. The guitars have been treated to produce a muddy, reverberating sound. They drone through a series of unresolved minor chords. Everything seems fuzzy, slightly out of focus. This music doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't build to a climax. It ends as uncertainly as it began. It just drifts, for two minutes and fifteen seconds. Yet it isn't laid back. It's too nervous and edgy. It exudes an air of restlessness, with a hint of violence. Something could explode at any moment. Something has just happened, or is about to happen. The music is heavy with premonitions. Overtones ring out. The drums speed up to double time. A single note insistently repeats. An extra guitar line snakes through the wall of sound. These variations unfold at the very edge of hearing. They appear briefly. Then they fade back into the mix. They seem to portend a greater change in the offing. But the future they look forward to does not arrive. The song remains distant and impassive. It inhabits an empty time, a time that never passes. This music lies suspended between memory and anticipation. The video for "Beauty Lies in the Eye" confounds things even further. It's a dazzling blur of strobe effects, overlaid images, and vivid colors. Dropped frames make for ripples of jerky motion. The camera tilts to extreme angles. It zooms in on the smallest details. Thurston Moore's fingers pick out chords on the guitar. Kim Gordon's lips caress the microphone. Waves churn in the ocean. Two, three, or more images appear at once on the screen. They pass through each other, like ghosts. They bleed into each other, leaving tracks of light in their wakes. They melt into smears of highly saturated color. Everything wavers and flows. Everything dissolves into a synesthetic haze. Kim Gordon's voice alone emerges intact. Her words come through clearly, with an almost palpable presence. She speaks the lyrics, more than she sings them. She reIs them slowly, nearly without expression. Her intonation is flat and matter-of-fact. The blankness of her voice seems at odds with what she is saying. For the lyrics themselves are laden with emotion. They are all about loss, regret, and yearning. Kim is taken by surprise. An old, forgotten love comes back to haunt her. "Something in the air there... brings you back to me. It's been so long." The past returns, unbidden and unwanted. "It's coming coming down over me." It sweeps through her in a rush. It seizes her, beyond all hope of forgetting. She is troubled by feelings long dead and gone. She is seduced by a lover who is no longer there. She searches out the eyes of someone who cannot return her gaze. That is why Kim Gordon's voice is blank. It speaks out of an immense distance. The passion is real enough. But Kim cannot claim it as her own. This love does not unfold in the time and space of the present. It happens in an empty time, a time that is not now. It takes place in a space removed, a space that is not here. It draws Kim outside herself. It lures her into its own alien depths. She cannot contain the "explosions in [her] eye." She cannot possess the vision that drives her mad. She can neither regain the past, nor free herself from its spell. The memories that haunt her belong to somebody else. "Beauty lies in the eyes of another's dreams. Beauty lies lost in another's dream." No song has the power to recover such a dream. No song can compensate for loss. No song can bridge the gap between one person and another. "Beauty Lies in the Eye" doesn't even try. Its words, like its sounds, are forever incomplete. "Beauty lies," rather than being the source of any truth. Beauty is not a recompense for anything that has been lost. For beauty is the pang of loss itself, its truest expression. It cannot be shared, and it cannot be preserved. It vanishes in the very act by which I apprehend it. I can only cry out, a witness to its passing. At the end of the song, there's a subtle shift in tone. Kim Gordon's voice is no longer entirely blank. It becomes imploring, almost wistful. She calls to someone who is not there and who will never answer: "Hey baby... Hey sweetheart... Hey fox come here... Hey beautiful... Come here, sugar."

Return to STRANDED IN THE JUNGLE Table of Contents

Go to my homepage

email me:

web page for Sonic Youth

purchase Sister from