“A solo record works best when you feel like you’re opening a window into somebody’s life, experiencing the things they’re going through or thinking about, places they’re seeing, through their eyes. At its best, you find a universality in it.” – Lee Ranaldo
Only those directly in its path know for certain, but there’s a good chance that when Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeastern United States in October 2012, it felt like the end of the world. When the storm finally left New York City alone, many residents dealt with destroyed homes and tattered lives but they also received aid from empathetic strangers.
Lee Ranaldo and his family were among the lucky Manhattanites. but for a week, they had no electricity, running water or heat. He did, however, have an acoustic guitar and, as has been the case of late, some new songs began spilling out of it, reflecting a prolific period imbued with eerie uncertainty.
Ranaldo had finished work on his last album, Between the Times and the Tides(released March 2012), before Sonic Youth went on hiatus in the fall of 2011. The record followed an informal period of songwriting, borne of acoustic guitar fiddling and more direct lyrics from a poet known for emotive abstraction. His plans to record a low-key acoustic LP soon evolved and many friends (Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, Nels Cline, Jim O’Rourke, Bob Bert, John Medeski, wife/artist Leah Singer) dropped by to conjure a vaguely psychedelic pop-rock sound that served Ranaldo and SY fans well.
A core unit came together, getting tighter after some roadwork, and soon Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Alan Licht, and bassist Tim Lüntzel became The Dust. The band dug in at Echo Canyon West thru the winter, evolving a new set of songs with a decidedly more group dynamic. Yet even though he was tracking new songs with the band (plus the always-welcome Medeski), Ranaldo wanted to present songs that were even more personal and adaptable to various live contexts.
The songs on this LP are darker, longer, and more intense than those of its predecessor, which was comparably upbeat. Despair and rage ripple through its atmosphere, but are held at bay, never quite able to touchdown. Ranaldo lives near Zucotti Park, which was HQ for NYC’s Occupy Wall Street movement. He has visited Occupy encampments in Toronto, São Paulo, and wherever else he can, often bringing his kids with him so they can witness left wing, non-violent democracy in action. Unlike his last record’s “Shouts,” there is no specific tribute to OWS, but there is a yearning for some real, societal shift. “Every time I wait for the revolution to come,” Ranaldo sings on “Home Chds.” “Every night I think it?s here and then it?s gone.”
At the same time the songs on Last Night on Earth reveal a guarded optimism. The term “hope” has been politically co-opted and devalued but it’s a key element on Last Night on Earth. Ranaldo sings of land and water and love and certainty—external life forces that can turn on us at any second—from an exploratory, inviting place of co-existence. When the world ends, we’re all in this together, and that’s a really beautiful, scary thing.