Your Neck Is My Favorite: Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves Turns 25
How do you explain your favorite album?
I love writing about music I love. (And in the right mood, I can enjoy writing about music I hate, but sometimes I’ll feel bad about it afterward; it was not fun to read Slug’s bummed tweet when I panned Atmosphere’s Fishing Blues.)
But I don’t even know how to begin writing about my all-time favorite album. A Thousand Leaves is the culmination of everything I know about music, my favorite thing. In this essay I will etc. lmao but figuring out how to put this love into language is going to be a learning experience for me as much as you.
Sonic Youth’s 10th album is not a distinctive pleasure like Exile in Guyville, Stankonia, Sign “O” the Times, or whatever easy tour de force you’ve got that showcases immediate talent, virtuosity, hooks. A quarter-century ago it wasn’t necessarily considered a pleasure at all, I’d say more respected than loved, except by Robert Christgau, at a time when anyone who’d normally care was getting sick of Sonic Youth. (People were pretty sick of Prince in 1998, too. Fuck people, you know?) But I didn’t know any of that shit.
I was in middle school and “Sunday,” in a stray late-night alt-radio appearance, was the first song I’d ever heard by the only band from the Homerpalooza episode of The Simpsons who didn’t perform any originals on the show. (They did a far-out version of the end-title theme instead.) So I knew they had clout in what little I knew of the culture, read about them a lot, and reading about them was fun. I’d say the panoply of sound effects they kindled on traditional (if rigged) rock instruments did live up to whatever the hype conjured in my mind, though their sweetness had to be experienced.
VIDEO: Sonic Youth “Sunday”
The word employed in every single nugget of writing about this band was “noise” and while “Sunday” has plenty of those, it evoked very different images for me, such as blinding sun poking through melting winter trees. The guitars poked up questioningly, and even though it was a single, there isn’t really a chorus to answer them. I’d say that’s the thrill of the thing, with the lightly spooky frost of Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s interlocking arpeggios being driven ahead by Steve Shelley’s urgent snowplow of a motorik beat: pushing, searching, following the sunlight. It moves like healthy, traditional rock ‘n’ roll, even as the tune itself lives and dies in pursuit of dreamy nonsense.
Stock was high in dreamy nonsense circa 1998: OK Computer gave the alt-rock boom its Dark Side of the Moon to Nevermind’s Zeppelin IV, so the angst of crunching guitars was once again giving way to psychedelic abstraction, sprawling musical architecture, and electronic studio wizardry. The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were bringing art-rock to college radio and making critics loony, while Belle and Sebastian, Stereolab and Elephant 6 were expanding what indie rock could be, literally as multi-person ensembles and with layered, high-fidelity production that bordered on orchestral. It finally culminated in a whole other boom in the 2000s with Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Broken Social Scene, and a whole lot of other usually-Canadian “bands” with upwards of six players.
A Thousand Leaves didn’t really fit into those trajectories, but Sonic Youth were stretching themselves in the late ‘90s. You could say their self-released SYR EPs flirted with post-rock, and they were interested in tracing their own roots as Yoko Ono-loving misfit students of the avant garde. Their Glenn Branca beginnings were now coming full circle with ministrations on Beat poetry, spoken word, longer drones and ragas, feedback of course, and with the previous Washing Machine, quite a bit that reminded me of the Grateful Dead and concurrent hippies, too. Few acts had a cushier deal with a major label, as David Geffen really let them follow the 11-minute narcotic sexathon “Hits of Sunshine” with nine more of “Karen Koltrane”’s bad-trip swirls on their longest and least marketable album to date. But they got Macaulay Culkin in the “Sunday” video; ‘90s icons gotta stick together. It barely cleared 50,000 sales before the Napster era. But it felt grand and regal.
I love everything my favorite band did in the ‘90s, from the beloved (Dirty was a brilliant inversion of rockstar bullshit, from its loud and antisexist lead tracks on down) to the insular (Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star is an unlikely cocktail of bratty and twilit). This had a new air, though. Blame Washing Machine, whose most popular track was the band’s boldest to date: 20 minutes of the elegiac closer “The Diamond Sea” no doubt helped give Sonic Youth the confidence to tinker for a three-year gap, releasing improvised obscurities on their own label and painting aurally in their own studio, free of the demands of hourly rates and concise songwriting. Much was made of this. The people who should know better ought to have replayed their early ‘70s Miles Davis to find a comparable analogous improviser whose ear for hypnotic spelunking and loosely edited, astonishingly textured environments was so good. Me, as an eighth grader, was lent the CD by a good friend who was much cooler and exposed to more interesting music. I didn’t really like the Kim songs that I now know to be unusually discordant and contentious even for her, but even before I knew how to process them I felt their sense of belonging–the spiky sour to Thurston and Lee’s sweet relief.
The easiest way to explain my love for this album is that I’ve plainly never gotten sick of it. That tends to be the case with my thornier desert island discs; Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World: Possible Musics remains such a mysterious porcupine to me that I’ve never stopped playing it. The more there remains to discover, the more reason to play the album all the fucking time. But it’s still very “knowable.” Pull up Genius and sing along to its most absurd abrasions, namely Kim Gordon’s demented nursery-rhyme inflections on “French Tickler” and “The Ineffable Me,” (shout it with me now: “Can’t catch me / I’m syntax-free”), not to mention her Alice in Wonderland bits on “Contre le Sexisme” and the deconstructionist drag routine “Female Mechanic Now on Duty”: “Modern women cry / Modern women don’t cry.” They’re devilish fun between Lee’s statement-of-purpose “Hoarfrost” (“We’ll know where when we get there”) and the still-life tripping of Thurston’s “Hits of Sunshine” (“Yellow girls are running backwards”). This is an album with places to go and like a good arthouse film, it doesn’t really matter if you think it actually made it from point A to point B. It’s how you feel along the expedition.
Unquestionably the most psychedelic and listener-demanding Sonic Youth record, the rewards are beyond colorful if you give it two shits. There’s the horror-movie stabs that turn the ominous “Karen Koltrane” into a harrowing nightmare halfway through. The malfunctioning amp-beeping that “Female Mechanic” gives way to before Kim presents her TED talk on modern women’s optical precipitation. The brief tussle with wrenching malfunctions before “Wildflower Soul” becomes the album’s most hopeful, anthemic melody. The paper-thin lullaby “Snare, Girl” followed by Kim’s lo-fi freakout “Heather Angel” as a finale. There are plenty of legible tunes among the, uh, foliage here, but A Thousand Leaves is really a trip in the true sense. The attractions are the setpieces and signposts. More than most Sonic Youth excursions, this one demands trust, to let them drive you through a soundscape unlike anything an inferior outfit’s alternate tunings and intergalactic pedalboards could dream up. It’s made of moments.
And I’m a verse-chorus-riff guy who doesn’t think much of post-rock, or at least the editing abilities and disciplined composing of most of its practitioners. This is the unprecedented work of art that bets the house on its own peculiarities and goes home winning big. Every shaped-in-the-studio second of its woolly, woodsy jams is crucial. The sprawling cuts pay off as much as the the couple of relatively short five-minute cuts. The staticky intro cut (“Alice? Oh, alice? It’s just a kitten! It’s! Just! A! Kittennnnnn!” is just delightful mad theater. It sure flirts with the inscrutable, but scrutiny is beyond the point when I just need to hear the thing weekly for the better part of 25 years.
When I talk about favorite bands, there’s kind of a brain/heart divide. The Dismemberment Plan is my favorite band in the sense that if I wrote a wishlist of everything I wanted in a rock band, they come close to how it looks on paper, the stated goals I’d want my favorite to achieve. Sonic Youth, on the other hand, more or less worked variations on the same sound for their entire lifespan. They mastered their own world early on of rare microtonal sounds in Western music, from Kim’s flat affect to their incongruous chord voicings. Then they just sat and made comfort food for weirdos from this formula for three decades and change, tweaking only what they needed to from one record to the next to build an oeuvre. I love 2000’s follow-up NYC Ghosts and Flowers almost as much as Leaves because only this band can create that decentered warmth, genuine yin and yang between the lovely parts and the ugly parts coexisting within the same song, such as “Free City Rhymes.” But they sound equally captivating in a purely melodic mood on Murray Street or Rather Ripped.
The lyrics! Kim especially pulls some truly fascinating wonders out of a stated desire to try and write songs from a male perspective: “A cum junkie’s job makes my dick throb,” “Make you go squish,” “I’ll transform even your breast.” The political poetry in lines like “I’ll throw up some time / Then you’ll be mine” is upside-down in that way that only Sonic Youth’s most iconic member could essay.
The band is a history of great Kim routines, a mix of childlike expressionism and adult pain relayed with Laurie Anderson’s hyperintelligent irony from unexpected angles. She’s simply a great rock ‘n’ roll ambassador of feminism and the body politic, which is usually conveyed by the useful abbreviation “cool.” She’s the best part of most SY albums, particularly breakthroughs like Goo and Dirty, but here she’s a whole new monster thrill: haunting the men in her band with paranormal disruptions and some of their most disturbing music among their prettiest.
A Thousand Leaves challenges four great musicians to tear open existing notes to find strange half-formed ones in between, to scale the limits of their studio space, of their songwriting and jamming sensibilities. Its imagination and wanderlust is off the charts (literally, it peaked at #85). It succeeds so incredibly.
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