Kim Gordon is like cilantro: she’s that one musical ingredient in Sonic Youth that people either want to be the star of the show, or the element that should be thrown out altogether. Sometimes, it’s her vocals: they can squeak and grate, and worst of all, when the band is grooving through their more melodious riffs, “she’ll just grunt and scream over it” (Pitchfork). But on songs like “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Halloween,” she is ethereal, even sexy, her voice a “breathy near whisper” (Rolling Stone). Other times, it’s her lack of training: whether she’s strapped with a bass or a guitar, Kim is more interested in generating her own brand of dissonance than flexing any technical prowess often reserved for the Angus Youngs and Joan Jetts of the world. But when Kim and bandmate Thurston Moore announced their divorce in 2011 after 27 years of marriage (sidenote: I cried less when my own parents divorced), it was easy, if not selfish, for us Sonic Youth fans to wonder how their breakup would affect the band’s future solo projects. Would she cut her hair, move to Sedona, and record a folk album? Or would she move to a remote village somewhere in Europe, open an art gallery, and never make music again?
Two years later, in an interview with Elle, Kim shared that after her husband moved out of their Massachusetts home, she listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap to deal with the pain, these genres being “really good when you’re traumatized.” Whatever images I had of Kim in despair—flannel pajamas, weeping into bowls of cereal, The Cure and Morrissey blaring from the living room—were dashed. Instead, she found solace and strength in hip-hop tracks like Gang Starr’s “The Planet,” the late ‘80s hit “It Takes Two” by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, and 2013’s “Wendy N Becky” by Joey Bada$$ feat. Chance the Rapper.
So when Matador Records announced the release of her debut solo album, No Home Record, it was no surprise to learn that the music that carried her through divorce was not only still in heavy rotation, but also an influence on her new material. During the songwriting process, she told Vogue, “I did want to do things with beats, but obviously not a hip-hop record…that would be just…weird.” And thank God for this sense of self-awareness, because without it would leave us with an album full of dreadful rap attempts bordering on cultural appropriation and embarrassment.
Nowhere is the hip-hop influence more obvious than on “Paprika Pony,” arguably the album’s best track, with its minimalist, Gucci Mane-esque backdrop of percussion. And
yet, it works: the opening lyrics, “What am I?/ Just not a girl/ A woman” are sung in a near whisper, her voice a layer of softness over a steady shuffle of beats. It isn’t until nearly halfway through the track when she breaks character and asks hurriedly, “What’s the last thing you said?” before reverting to a delicate murmur, an indication that perhaps she’s seconds away from getting you by the throat. On “Cookie Butter,” a thunderous beat—courteous of a drum machine borrowed from a friend—pulsates beneath an onslaught of simple phrases: “I eat/ I drink/ I forget/ I buy,” a nod to her fascination with consumerism. The song finishes with a clamor of guitars that sound like buzzing chainsaws.
And though the use of a drum machine finds Kim in new territory, No Home Record still contains the kind of songwriting we’ve come to expect from her. With a chorus reminiscent of 2000s-era Sonic Youth, “Air BnB” is a punk romp with a brilliant bass line. (The video is fantastic, too.) And the guttural punch of “Murdered Out” is Kim in concentrated form, a cacophony of ear-piercing guitarwork that could serve as the soundtrack to a horror film. In fact, both “AirBnB” and “Murdered Out” hit harder than any Sonic Youth song recorded within the past twenty years. Maybe it’s not fair to compare, but as I listen to No Home Record, I find myself asking: What would Sonic Youth have sounded like without Kim? Would their music have been as abrasive, experimental, unique?
We will never know. But as far as I’m concerned, you can put cilantro on everything.