Kim Gordon Lets Her Instincts Run Rampant on Debut Solo Album ‘No Home Record’
Kim Gordon, best known as the feminine force behind indie icons Sonic Youth, has kept steadily at it, turning out intriguing work in various mediums. After a career spanning three decades with her initial band, and four albums along the way with Free Kitten (her side band with Pussy Galore’s Jile Cafritz) she has recently focused her attention on Body/Head, a group that taps into the same noise-centered sound that has always been central to Gordon’s aesthetic, but generally ditches the rock ‘n’ roll proclivities for more droney, free-format indulgences. In 2015, Gordon published her memoir, “Girl in the Band,” which recounted her life from her childhood in L.A. to her career in New York, and everything in between. Her new album, “No Home Record,” fittingly takes its name from “No Home Movie,” a film released the same year by Belgian avant-garde documentary filmmaker Chantal Akerman, which similarly chronicles life experiences. It’s Gordon’s first solo album, after all these years, and finds her straying from the loose meanderings of Body/Head, channeling her designed chaos into a bolder onslaught, with lyrics either typically opaque or issued in tandem with her projects in other disciplines.
The album begins with the sound of strings, then Gordon’s husky voice suddenly enters a seriously distorted beat, with a murmur recalling the work of Peter Swanson, who in turn, quite surely took influence from the No Wave movement that gave rise to Sonic Youth. As if this isn’t heavy enough of an onslaught, there are momentary blasts of noise that lift things over the top, making for a brutal, jolting beginning. This could easily be the most groove-based thing Gordon has done to date, but of course, the driving pulse comes twisted and reverberating. Gordon has spoken before of how for her lyrics usually have more to do with sound than meaning, and tend to come to her intuitively. Back in the Sonic Youth days, she used to use a variation of the old David Bowie technique, in which she clipped out random magazine cut outs and spliced them together to create lyrics. While she’s moved on from this approach, the majority of her subject matter is still abstruse and open-ended, while nearly always sounding poetic and avant-garde. In “Sketch Artist,” she sings, “And the wind chimes strike, and your dead stare strikes,” setting the stage for an album that is, as a whole, dark, visceral, and cryptic.
Gordon began as a visual artist. At one of her early exhibitions that involved a collection of different chairs, presented as works of art, her then future bandmate and now ex-husband Thurston Moore impudently plopped himself down on one of the exhibits. To the entire gallery’s surprise, she excitedly told him, “That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.” The rest was history, and after a glorious run spanning three decades, the archetypal indie couple are split for good. However, Gordon has continued working in visual arts, and in a recent project, has taken inspiration from a peculiar subject — Air BnB. The vacation rental business is a weirder phenomenon that one might first think. It reveals a prevalent desire in society to escape our lives and ourselves. Unlike a typical vacation with a hotel stay, an Air BnB reservation brings you directly into a stranger’s intimate home, allowing you to experience a different lifestyle — a vacation from yourselves. Gordon has put together an exhibition, “She Bites Her Tender Mind,” on display at IMMA in Dublin, Ireland.
And of course, “No Home Record” comes with a corresponding song. “Air BnB” is something different altogether, a song about a very specific subject, and a brilliant, novel one, full of the demure wryness that has always been in Gordon’s music. It starts with the bits of quickly strummed, clipped bits of guitar that recall the lunatic stylings of Captain Beefheart. In come slams of noise more brutally heavy than anything from the Sonic Youth days, then occasional cartoon wheezing sounds, over a background of slap bass at its most minimal. The skewed, vaguely funk element recalls the music of No Wave peers James Chance and the Contortionists. Over this madcap assemblage, come the type of reflective musings only a singer like Gordon could possibly express, as they inevitably are accompanied by a combination of punk snarl and coy, suggestive whispering. Then enters the monster chorus, with angular, overlayed guitars, little bends thrown into the mess in the same blues-turned-on-its-head style as “Kool Thing” from Sonic Youth’s 1990 “Goo,” and Gordon’s breathy repetitions of the titular line sounding thrillingly absurd.
Gordon continues to keep the surprises coming. “Paprika Pony” places her over a decluttered beat that takes inspiration from hip-hop (even trap for that matter) with abundant hi hats and sharp snares, except stretched and spiked, bare other than an intimated melody of a few scattered notes. It’s an arrangement that allows Gordon’s voice to resonate, as she fills the space with the type of free imagery that has always been a staple — such phrases like, “Lies which flow’ and “Floor-length me.” Bright distortion and plenty of hiss starts “Murdered Out,” and when the main song structure takes off, it’s a slew of grating, jarring, and overall exhilarating noises that spark and bleed into one another, over an unassuming, descending bass line. A trademark trick of Gordon’s is to skirt around the edges of a tune with scattered, tangential utterances that create the mirage of a registerable melody, levels removed.
“Don’t Play it Back” appropriates a sort of dance beat, if one could be deconstructed and shrouded in haze in a way that somehow matches Gordon’s aesthetic. Gordon bellows in reverberating, echoing calls, a bit like the loosely structured but impassioned stylings of the most eccentric protest music, and one can imagine this song making a massive impact in a large arena. The most exciting vocal bits come when Gordon makes exclamations, free of any ostensible concept, howling, “Where are my cigarettes? Those aren’t my brand,” and eventually, “You can pee in the ocean / It’s free.” Perhaps it’s a statement about a world in which practically everything has been capitalized, but at any rate, it demands attention. There’s a dub element to the song, with last syllables ringing off in trails.
“Cookie Butter” is another minimalist exercise, with phrases such as “I drink / I forget / I buy / I drive,” over a looped, skeletal bit, almost spoken word style, giving a sense of the mechanical steps that govern our day-to-day lives. There’s a long, anticipatory buildup before these self-affirmations give way to the lyrics, “Industrial supplies / Cookie butter,” upon which a fittingly industrial, hypnotic whirlwind carries the song through its end, creating an offbeat, trance-like effect. “Hungry Baby” starts like Gordon at her most standard post-punk, but within moments piles on the layers of buzzing, strident noise. Unlike many of the other tracks, which derive much of their power from striking loud-to-soft dynamic shifts, this is a nonstop punk stomper that hooks you in, and keeps you going with its bold, discordant indulgence. There are detachedly sexual lyrics, another longstanding signature of Gordon’s, in lines like “Touch yr nipple / Pretend yr mine / Hungry baby / Come my way.” Gordon has always had a fairly narrow, although famously distinctive sound, so it’s especially thrilling to hear her build to an unprecedented epic howl midway, as the music reaches its apex.
A departure from the sound and fury comes in “Earthquake,” with the type of open arrangement that must have made its way at least once into every Sonic Youth record. Over vaguely aquatic guitars, Gordon sings so off-key that anyone who never signed on religiously to the full indie aesthetic would assume this a parody, as the singing is simply insufferably poor. Punk, post-punk, no wave, new wave, and all of its offshoots have always defined themselves largely by disavowal of convention. Yet, these types of vocals have generally come along with riotous rackets that complemented the stylings. Stripped to a bare backdrop, the song comes off like incomprehensibly bad Karaoke. On the other hand, Gordon has been doing this for decades, and it’s safe to say there are plenty with whom it strikes a chord. The unabashed unconformity of it, perhaps, allows for a particularly authentic expression of emotion. While many of Gordon’s songs would warrant a title like “Earthquake,” the title doesn’t factor in quite as one might expect. Gordon sings, “This song is for you / If I could cry and shake for you,” applying the title to relationship dynamics. Then, there are the inscrutable lines, “You want me to be you / When you’re twelve,” perhaps a mild jab at the pressures artists feel to remain stagnant, as to maintain the demographics of their target market — but who knows.
“Get Yr Life Back Yoga” is a dark, profound closer with a hell of a title. With the number of yoga studios boasting increasingly trendy, preposterously esoteric focuses infinitely expanding, Gordon has put her finger on the pulse. She sings of “The end of capitalism / Winners and losers,” taking a panoramic look at the associated trends of the day, with the line “Hash away at twittering.” Having always presented herself as a feminist, she challenges us to measure her degree of irony when referencing an “overly natural feminist movement.” This eventually gives way to her most acerbic, as she whispers, “And the plastic sign / You get your life back,” going on to decry the safe, tepid nature of the culture in lines like, “Take out the voiceover / the Fleetwood Mac song.” Finally, after all this incision, she simply shrugs, “I feel bad for you / I feel bad for me,” and concludes declaring the brand “Get Yr Life Back Yoga.”
The sounds of the closer effectively encapsulate the essence of the record. There’s a haunted house feel, with ambient tinkering noise, and Gordon’s vocals, always up close and personal, especially so here. The chorus launches you into a different plane altogether, with Gordon hovering ominously over the most eerie, twisted, buzzing cacophony, bringing the album to a chillingly impactful end. Sonic Youth always fell somewhere between noise art and alternative rock. Thurston Moore has mentioned in interviews how he saw them as a rock band, and particularly liked the standard rock quartet format. One can’t help but speculate how much Gordon is to be credited for all the elements that gave the band most of its edge, and set it apart. If “Body/Head’s” releases are any example, Gordon seems to take her inspiration from everything that is intuitive, abrasive, and opaque — a hell of a combination for adventurous spirits seeking an exciting listen. “No Home Record” is more condensed and concentrated, more severe and unhinged, more elusive and cooly critical from a detached, distorted platform, than anything before.
“No Home Record” is available Oct. 11 on Apple Music.