Written by Connor Davis
For thirty years, Kim Gordon performed, recorded, bled and obliterated with iconoclastic cult heroes Sonic Youth. Comprised primarily of Gordon (bass, vocals), her now ex-husband Thurston Moore (guitar, vocals), and Lee Ranaldo (guitar, occasional vocals) and several drummers along the way, Sonic Youth became one of the most essential and influential bands of the 20th and 21st centuries. Over the decades, the band garnered consistent critical acclaim for their angular guitar attacks and refreshing take on rock music, which can be described as a concoction of experimental, avant-garde ingredients with a punk rock ethos and aesthetic. But the seemingly infinite story of Sonic Youth came to an abrupt end in 2011. The breakup (or indefinite hiatus, as Moore has insisted on calling it) of the band was due to the break up of Gordon and Moore’s marriage, a union almost as long as Sonic Youth’s.
After the band called it quits, Gordon decided to focus most of her artistic energy on her first love, visual art. But, thankfully, she never unplugged her amp. Since 2013, Gordon has played alongside kindred spirit and fellow connoisseur of dissonance Bill Nace in the experimental, improvisation-heavy Body/Head. The duo mostly focuses on creating atmospheric soundscapes while employing sparse lyrics, often expanding on the experimentation of Sonic Youth.
And now, at 66, Gordon has released her debut solo album No Home Record (October 11th). With this record, Gordon continues to explore her love for noise and experimentation. But there is also plenty of “rockness” present, alongside the surprising implementation of some musical themes typically only used within the realm of hip-hop. The final product is essential listening.
One of the highlights of the LP is “Hungry Baby,” which kicks off with a quick pinch of twisted guitar, then launches into a straight-ahead, noise-infused rock song. The simple, plucking bass riffs and the chugging-ahead drums fuse with the wiry noise that hangs over and dives in and out of the track (but mostly in). When the chorus hits, it hits hard; dissonant guitar chords augment the noise and add a complexity and razor edge to the composition. Gordon’s vocals, delivered with her classic whisper/talk-singing, are confident and vindictive here, calling out the titular “hungry baby,” either in the first person or from the perspective of some unidentified other.
Not surprisingly, this track is also the tightest, rock-like song of the bunch. For reference, at the beginning of the opening track “Sketch Artist,” Gordon’s vocals are slanted against the long, mournful notes of a cello, which are soon swallowed up by an overdriven, distorted bass, somewhat reminiscent of hip hop instrumentation. The heaviness subsides to let an acoustic guitar and subtle drone take center stage, only to be quickly interrupted again by the bass and drum attack. All the while, Gordon’s vocals skip across the song like a chipped stone. Her age is apparent in her voice, but it seems as if she’s leaning into it, letting her voice waver, perhaps showing an acquired jadedness. “Sketch Artist” acts as a sort of sampler for what is to come, a grab bag and a tone-setter. Other tracks where hip hop-esque instrumentals are featured prominently are in “Paprika Pony,” and “Cookie Butter,” the former taking a minimalist trap-like approach with the drum machine and piano/keyboard syncopated combo, with Gordon dryly delivering lyrics like “What am I?/Just not a girl/A woman.”
Maybe the most unique song of the bunch is the fifth track, “Don’t Play it Back.” The production of the song is purposefully “off” like it could have been recorded in a decrepit dance club with concrete for walls. There’s also a pulsing yet muted bass present that, along with Gordon’s vocals, sounds as if it is submerged in water. Gordon’s cadence is interesting too; it almost has a punching quality, like she’s trying to pierce the “water” with her words.
Gordon’s voice has always been attention-demanding; her delivery can span anywhere from anxious and urgent, to chaotic and caustic. But however it comes out, it always oozes with sincerity. Her lyrics, which in this record divulge on breakups, identity, and her love/hate relationship with Air BnB’s (see “Air BnB”), parallel the vindictive, hurt, and biting tones conveyed by her voice.
Gordon’s musical vocabulary with Sonic Youth and Body/Head manifests itself most prominently in “Earthquake,” the penultimate track of the record. No drums. No verse. No chorus. Just atonal vocals that float above the sprawling guitar-droning ambiance. The track offers a break from the industrial instrumentation of the previous songs. The closing “Get Yr Life Back” continues this musical theme, but also incorporates the now-familiar distorted bass motif as the song progresses and then finally ends in a relatively subdued sputtering of feedback and sound effects.
Throughout Sonic Youth’s existence, Kim Gordon was seen as the cool one in the group– perpetually calm, collective, and stoic. Her presence as the only woman in the band was obvious, and the fact that Gordon and Moore were married was well known. These identifiers perhaps unfairly overshadowed Gordon’s artistry and contributions to the group. Moore understandably received the preponderance of attention for his contribution to the band, as he was generally seen as being the de facto leader and primary songwriter. But Sonic Youth was always a democracy; Gordon and Moore would practically split vocal duties, and a sizable amount of lyrics were penned by Gordon. Also, since many of their songs would, in their infancy, be played as improvisations constructed around a riff or two, she would be required to compose her own bass lines and vocal cadences.
No Home Record kills any debate there still may be about Gordon’s artistry. But there shouldn’t have ever really been a debate: Gordon’s songs with Sonic Youth are good. Her art is good. Body/Head is good. And No Home Record is good, through and through. Gordon’s legacy no longer solely rests on her time in Sonic Youth and the band’s collective achievements. Or even those of Body/Head, Free Kitten, or any other project she’s been associated with. She now has an album where she is the woman in charge, the sole recipient of whatever criticism and praise comes her way. And No Home Record is more than deserving of praise.