Five years ago, straight off a plane, Kim Gordon played a set at MoMA PS1 in New York as part of a Semiotext(e) event called ‘The Return of Schizo-Culture’. She wore a bright, tight, orange mini dress and silver heels and, with her eyes cast down, remained expressionless while dipping and swinging her Fender, rolling on the floor and guiding her instrument into ropes of sonic distortion. Her movements were methodical, curiously dispassionate and at odds with the sounds she made. Soon into her set, however, another more accurate adjective suggested itself: ironical. What we were watching, it seemed, was not a straight performance but, rather, a dryly pastiched choreography of masculine rock-god showboating. When an audience member ducked to avoid being hit in the head by her lunging guitar, she paused and whispered a quick ‘sorry’, before continuing. Gordon had never made more sense to me than in this moment. Here was a clarifying collision of the two halves that have defined and complicated both her music and her mythos. She was (still is) one part the introverted and sensitive artist who had no wish to hurt anyone. She was also, in this moment, the heavy-lidded rock goddess idolized for simultaneously aping and boldly claiming a realm of supposedly masculine power. Having played bass on stage between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo in Sonic Youth, where an interplay of the cerebral and the visceral was among the many things that made the band great, Gordon owned this territory for 30 years. (The title of her 2015 memoir, Girl in a Band, is borrowed from Sonic Youth’s 2009 song ‘Sacred Trickster’, which mocks the moronic question she was asked incessantly by journalists: ‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’) Sonic Youth evinced intellect, dry wit and melodic sophistication, while also ripping the guts out of the world with cathedrals of noise. They could mutter a quiet sorry; they could knock your brains out of your head.
Gordon – whose collaborations with experimental guitarist Bill Nace in Body/Head produced entrancing, drone-driven, time-warping convolutions – has, at the age of 66, made her first solo album. The restless, sometimes rageful No Home Record (2019) lures as much as it discomfits. It’s an experimental record, in that each track sounds like just that: an exercise in dark, circumspect curiosity – testing the limits of things, tasting out words, feeling out the shapes of sound.
On the industrial, down-and-dirty heft of ‘Murdered Out’ she sings about ‘black matte spray’: an epiphenomenon of Los Angeles’s lowrider community, where obliterating vehicles’ logos is, she has said, ‘a subliminal way of X-ing yourself out of the culture’. In other words, black matte spray might work the same way as a mid-set apology over a near-swipe: a negation of convention, a refutation of expectation. When she rasps ‘murdered out of my heart’, however, it sounds like another, more personal ‘X-ing out’ of the past. Innumerable fans mourned rock’s most canonized marriage when, after nearly three decades, it ended in 2011.
Gordon’s voice mostly sounds like what 3am feels like: wrung out, hollowed out and attenuated into a place of nothing left to prove, where exhaustion is its own kind of high. There’s an arid elegance to this, especially on the sexy and uncomfortable ‘Paprika Pony’. The record’s best track, however, is its last: ‘Get Yr Life Back’ has a title that can only be another instance of flat disdain (black matte spray) for the Goop-ified hellscape that is being female under late capitalism, while its lyrics, characteristically semaphoric (‘The end of capitalism / Winners and losers’; ‘The detailing is sublime / My nipples are shivering’) blend eroticism and contempt.
On ‘Cookie Butter’ Gordon intones a litany of two-word phrases as though reciting some kind of messed-up English language primer for the present tense: ‘I suck / I approach / I fucked / I think / I want / I was born / I fell / I drank.’ It’s a spare, strange, inscrutable poem of pronoun plus verb, pronoun plus verb, ad infinitum. It ends, finally, with Gordon whispering the title phrase, clipping its ‘t’s in a way so intimate that it suggests both the delectable and the sickly. How appropriate, then, that this should give way to ‘Hungry Baby’, a roaring and scouring tirade of sick voraciousness rather than maternal tenderness: ‘Start a war / Hungry baby / You’re out of time.’ If she’s talking about who we think she’s talking about then, yes, let’s hope the Trump baby is indeed out of time come 2020. Would that music could impeach through force of feeling.
‘Women’, Gordon wrote, in one of Girl in a Band’s most quoted lines, ‘are expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it.’ Why either or? Her art and music have always spoken more eloquently than her words; the rough glory of No Home Record whispers a contradiction: that maybe annihilating the world, or at least parts of it, might be another way of holding it up.
Kim Gordon’s No Home Record, distributed by Matador, debuts 11 October 2019.
Main image: Kim Gordon performing at Semiotext(e) presents The Return of Schizo-Culture on November 16, 2014, presented at MoMA PS1 as part of VW Sunday Sessions 2014-2015. Courtesy: MoMA PS1; photograph: Charles Roussel
First published in Issue 206
First published in Issue 206