Roughly, very roughly, Sonic Youth’s lifespan as a band corresponded with the number of years that the marriage between bassist and vocalist Kim Gordon and lead guitarist and vocalist Thurston Moore lasted. Sonic Youth, the iconic and immensely influential band, was formed in 1981 and broke up in 2011, the year Gordon and Moore’s 27-year-old marriage fell apart after Gordon discovered Moore’s infidelity and an extra-marital affair that had been going on for years. Gordon’s 2015 memoir, Girl In A Band, offers an intimate look at their relationship and her heartbreak; the history of the band; and the music and art scene in New York, where the band was based, as well as in Los Angeles, where she was raised and has now relocated.
Sonic Youth’s 22 studio albums and their massive impact on contemporary music itself deserves a treatise. Famously, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain was a huge fan and has been reported to have said he and his band strived to achieve the musical standards that Sonic Youth set. Legions of other bands have been influenced by Sonic Youth, which stood as the vanguard of the No Wave movement that rejected punk’s somewhat repetitive recycling of similar-sounding music and experimented instead with noise, unexpected tunings, and clashes of discordant notes that were matched with lyrics that seemed nihilistic but were also often comments on politics and society. Bands that have, over the years, acknowledged Sonic Youth’s influence include names such as Nirvana, of course, but also Beck, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pavement, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr.
Post-Sonic Youth, Gordon, who turned 66 this year, went back initially to making visual art, which had been her first vocation. But, later, she also turned to music, touring in various formations, and creating a band called Body/Head, a duo project with guitarist Bill Nace. But it was only early this October that Gordon released her first solo album, No Home Record. It’s produced by Justin Raisen, an American producer, whom she met in an Airbnb apartment that both were renting. Raisen is a veteran who has worked with the likes of John Cale, Angel Olsen, Michael Stipe, and Billy Corgan. Gordon, Raisen, and electronic musician and composer Jake Meginsky form the core team that has produced No Home Record.
On first listen, Gordon’s solo debut can seem disconcerting. Jittery drum machines, experimental electronics, and abrasive, strangely tuned guitars all combine to create a quirky soundscape that takes a bit of time to get used to. But soon it starts seeping in and making sense. Gordon’s trademark vocals—she part sings, part speaks the words—and eccentric lyrics that leave the listener enough space to interpret them as he or she wants, make the album’s nine songs (spanning just under 40 minutes) an eccentric aural panoply.
Although Gordon’s lyrics rarely have lateral storylines, the songs on No Home Record are reflective of the general mood in the world, particularly in America. They are angry and comment on things such as mindless consumption, politics and gentrification. On Don’t Play It, against a disjointed electronic dance music beat, she sings: “Where are my cigarettes?/Those aren’t my brand/Those aren’t my brand…" On Airbnb, she sings about the temporary enjoyment of luxuries—a 47-inch TV, slated walls, fresh towels—all of which are rented and transient. Gordon’s voice is as raw as it has ever been but Sonic Youth’s No Wave nihilism appears to have evolved into a more post-modern sensibility about the things that she sees around her now.
Each track oozes with tonal experimentation. On Cookie Butter, the longest song on the album, over a background of repetitive bass and electronic drum machine beats that can appear to be out of a DJ-and-drug-fuelled all-night trance session, she speak-sings short verses that could seem like a stream of consciousness but actually make sense: “I saw/ I knew/ I remember/ I liked/ I met/ I awaken/ I wish/ I have/ I saw/ I approach/ I fu#*ed/ I think/ I won’t/ I was born/ I fell/ I drank/ I miss/ I pretend…" The effect is strangely and seductively hypnotic.
After Sonic Youth broke up, the other members of the band too embarked on projects, both solo as well as collaborative. Gordon’s ex-husband, Moore, and Sonic Youth’s other guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, have released many more solo albums than Gordon. But competent as they have been, none of those has been as phenomenal or fierce as No Home Record. Instead of looking to the past and drawing on Sonic Youth’s storied legacy, Gordon has tried to do something new. The innovation starts from the very process of making the album—instead of a conventional band trying out tunes together, the trio of Raisen, Meginsky and Gordon is believed to have often worked on tracks independently before recording them in a studio. Each of them brings a unique sensibility to the music: Gordon’s uncompromising lyrics; Raisen’s vast experience of working with musicians across an expansive range of genres; and Meginsky’s envelope-pushing experiments with electronics. That combination has worked.
No Home Record isn’t an album for those seeking traces of Sonic Youth’s stellar discography. Nor is it an album for those who want their music in neat, predictable packages that aren’t a challenge to the ear. With her solo debut, Gordon demonstrates that even a veteran rocker with a formidable reputation from the past can make you sit up and take notice without her dipping into an old repertoire or trying to be what she once was. I won’t be surprised if No Home Record has the sort of influence on today’s younger musicians that Sonic Youth’s vast repertoire had in their heyday.
THE LOUNGE LIST
Five tracks from ‘No Home Record’ to bookend your week
1. ‘Air BnB’
2. ‘Cookie Butter’
3. ‘Paprika Pony’
4. ‘Murdered Out’
5. ‘Hungry Baby’
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.
Twitter - @sanjoynarayan