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Sonic Youth - A Thousand Leaves Music Album Reviews

Today on Pitchfork, we are publishing new reviews of five important Sonic Youth records, each one a pivotal moment in the career of one of the most exceptional and historically influential bands.

In 1995, Sonic Youth bucked expectation and headlined Lollapalooza. The booking, an offer they had refused multiple times, seemed emblematic of the band’s trajectory; five years prior, they had signed with David Geffen’s DGC imprint, the label that released more accessible LPs like Goo and Dirty. Sonic Youth had always found Lollapalooza corny—a “crowd of university kids with a spring-break mentality,” as Thurston Moore once put it. But in 1995, with a supporting lineup of Pavement, Beck, and the Jesus Lizard, Sonic Youth recognized that a cultural shift—one they’d been nurturing for the past 15 years—was rumbling in the mainstream. They also realized that their festival bounty could finance a new means of creative freedom: Sonic Youth used their earnings to purchase a 16-track recording studio in lower Manhattan, and A Thousand Leaves was the first LP to grow from its soil.

It was a polarizing harvest. Those initiated on the poppier Goo and Dirty found the 1998 album’s yawning passages and guitar tangles inaccessible. Those who felt betrayed by the very accessibility of Sonic Youth’s early-’90s DGC output, however, heard a band merging its dual aptitudes: fearless experimentation and melodic indie rock. Now, 21 years since its release, A Thousand Leaves reveals a group that was still full of creative ambition nearly two decades into its career. Despite major-label grooming and the hurdles of parenthood (Moore and Kim Gordon had their daughter Coco in 1994), Sonic Youth made an album for no one but themselves. A Thousand Leaves is far from perfect, but it’s the sound of four musicians doing exactly what they set out to do.

This clear-cut sense of intention no doubt stems from Sonic Youth’s increased control over their music, or at least the means of making it. Unencumbered by hourly rates, the group took nearly two years laying down the 11-song LP in its new studio in New York’s Financial District. “We just sort of let ourselves grow away from the cycle of writing, recording, touring—the competitive nature of being out there,” Moore told The New York Times in 1998, later revealing that the compositional inspiration for A Thousand Leaves was just as unrestrained. “Turntable and disk jockey culture is pretty much all about repetitive and improvised structure,” Moore explained. “There are no real classic song ideas.”

That A Thousand Leaves was void of “classic song ideas” might have fueled some critics’ disdain for it in ’98, but much of the record has aged well in the past 20 years. “Sunday,” an undeniable gem that marries Sonic Youth’s dual tendencies toward melody and experimental spinouts, was an early single, paired with a Macaulay Culkin-starring music video directed by Harmony Korine. “Sunday” also received the commercial radio treatment, its original five minutes chopped to three. The truncated version sadly omits the song’s most interesting passage: a mess of squeals and gasps from Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars around the three-minute mark. As their gnarled instruments unspool, Moore deadpans: “With you, Sunday never ends,” just before the lights dim and the song is snuffed out.

Some of the most successful tracks on A Thousand Leaves are crafted from opposing forces. Songs like “Wildflower Soul” and “Karen Koltrane” fold quiet, measured details into greater passages of cacophony. “Wildflower Soul” seemingly spans every word in the band’s sonic vocabulary: ’60s folk, the Velvet Underground, and the combative guitar ensembles of Glenn Branca. The 11-minute “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” is brimming with clatters, clicks, and squeaks that sound handmade in a foley studio. During a wordless interlude, guitars warble like Peter Frampton’s talk box dosed with codeine, their oozing pace steadied by Steve Shelley’s modest snare.

Thurston Moore has said that Sonic Youth’s approach to writing lyrics had more to do with the musicality of words—how they function within the existing composition—than their literal or metaphorical significance. “Hits of Sunshine” is one of the few tracks on the album whose lyrics succeed on both planes. Moore practically whispers, unveiling vivid, impressionistic scenes. “The painting has a dream/Where shadow breaks the seam,” he murmurs. “Blue is bashful/Green is my goal/Yellow girls are running backward.” It’s a fitting elegy for the legendary Beat poet (and friend of the band) Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997.

Elsewhere, the voice is wielded as an instrument of abrasion, particularly on Kim Gordon’s superbly caustic entries. “The Ineffable Me” is delightfully snotty, Gordon’s vocal cords ripped raw and strained into shrieks as she tears down office misogynists. “Don’t you break her… Or you’ll fuck with me,” she commands, before taunting her enemy: “It’s a cushy job/A pussy’s job/A cum junkie’s job/Makes my dick throb.” Bass crunches and rumbles beneath her as if she’s standing atop an active volcano. Gordon spews equally potent venom on “French Tickler” and “Female Mechanic Now on Duty,” the latter alternating punk discord with lulling guitar excerpts. “Modern women cry/Modern women don’t cry” Gordon muses at the song’s center, summarizing the complex, often conflicting standards women are held to (which, two decades later, have not much improved).

The tracks on A Thousand Leaves that haven’t endured are those that drag, or, as one reviewer wrote in the ’90s, feel simultaneously “tossed off and overwrought.” Opener “Contre Le Sexisme” is one. While its atmospheric chimes and smears of static make for a nuanced ambient piece, Gordon’s pitchy croons are just small enough to irritate, like a fruit fly flitting around your ear canal; the instinct is to swat it away. “Hoarfrost” and “Snare, Girl” are snoozers of a different caliber; they follow a more traditional song structure than “Contre,” but fall flat when compared with the rest of the album. Perhaps they were inserted as sonic respites from all the noise, but silence could have done the job just as well.

Some of the record’s shortcomings haven’t evaporated with age, but 21 years after it divided critics and disoriented fans, A Thousand Leaves is an exciting—if flawed—testament to longevity and process. Prior to A Thousand Leaves Sonic Youth had already put in 17 years as a group, released nine albums, and started families; they could have easily banged out another crowd-pleasing LP and collected their checks, or retired altogether. Instead, they chose to make a piece of art on their own terms and time. That it emerged imperfect was likely the least of their concerns.

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