Four Decades Into Her Career, Kim Gordon is Still Exploding Our Expectations

Listen closely: On “Principles,” the jarring penultimate track of Kim Gordon‘s new solo album, The Collective, are the words she’s wailing, “an actress of life”? Or is that last word “light” or “lies” or “live” or something else? The line transmits differently if you listen to it on a big stereo, expensive headphones, a beach speaker, shitty AirPods, and shittier iPhone speakers, since she’s buried it so deeply in atmospheric reverb and industrial clanging. You gotta open up your earholes. With vocals mixed so opaquely, listening to The Collective is an act of discovery.

Gordon, who began her career as a visual artist before co-founding Sonic Youth, understands that every deep concept requires multiple perspectives. So there are many ways to hear the album.

The songs come off as avant-garde, trap, old-school hip-hop, noisy, or musique concrète depending on where you drop the needle. Producer Justin Raisen, who co-produced Gordon’s 2019 solo album No Home Record, has stacked up credits recently on tracks for Lil Yachty, Kid Cudi, Teezo Touchdown, and Drake. Here, he and Gordon create a sound that recalls the noise-loving avant-garde rap that groups like Clouddead and Dälek were making 20 years ago but with more modern rhythms and Gordon’s breathy apostrophizing. Raisen and drummer Anthony Paul Lopez even took credits on the record for “foley” — capturing sound effects as if for a film — to open up the textures in unusual ways. The audio swirl sounds spacious or claustrophobic depending on the moment, and when it all congeals into a throbbing rhythm, e.g., the rap-like “dolluh, dolluh” rattle of final track “Dream Dollar,” it really hits. It’s in those moments where Gordon’s goals are clearest.

For decades, people saddled Sonic Youth’s outré musical techniques and song structures with the word “experimental,” and the band even used the word (ironically?) in an album title 30 years ago. But the description was unfair since most of the experimenting (unusual guitar tunings, weird rhythms) took place before the band entered the recording studio — they intended their music to startle — and the group saved its most daring experiments (Anagrama, Goodbye 20th Century) for its SYR vanity label. So Gordon’s intent to make rhythmic and unsettling avant-garde hip-hop is what drives The Collective. (In fact, the album feels like the inverse, like a photo negative, of her 2000 SYR release, a collaboration with DJ Olive and Ikue Mori, titled ミュージカル パ一スペクティブ, since formlessness and total space was the goal then. But even that trio pulled off the songs live at least once.)

From the opening discord of “Bye Bye,” Gordon’s aim on The Collection is surprise. The plucked plush synth pads, set to an 808-style handclap-spangled breakbeat, could serve as sonic backdrop for verses by Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, or ScHoolboy Q, and it’s equally effective for Gordon’s Delphic rapping, in this case a packing list for a trip (“sleeping pills, sneakers, boots … eyelash curler, vibrator, teaser, bye-bye”). There’s no chorus, so it feels like the rhythm and the windy way she says “con-dish-on-err” that pull you along.

Of course, nothing on the album could be called rap per se, though Gordon speaks more than she sings, and she occasionally corrodes her voice with Autotune and other grungy filters. There’s still plenty of guitar and hard-hitting drums (especially on “Bye Bye”) for it to be pure rap but it’s the way she flirts with the form that’s most compelling. “The Candy House,” which references Jennifer Egan’s excellent like-titled overlapping-short-stories-as-novel, features Migos-like triplets (likely performed by YBG aka Young Baby Goat) and bell-like pads as Gordon sings, “I won’t join the collective” — it’s like walking up to the door but not knocking.

On “I’m a Man,” she skewers shitty dudes (just as she did with Chuck D on “Kool Thing” decades ago) over a spacious, skittery trap beat. “Don’t call me toxic, just because I like your butt,” she exclaims (in character). “It’s not my fault I was born a man.”  And on the beat-heavy, Peaches-esque “Blistex,” she uses Uncle Luke’s favorite word but recontextualizes it: “Pussy Riot, Pussy Galore … don’t arrest me … pussy, pussy, pussy … send in the clowns.” (She speaks more words in the lacunae but as on “Principles,” they’re obfuscated, and so is her meaning. Does she really say, “They don’t teach clit in school?” It sounds like it.)


Sometimes the music is pretty but often it’s harsh. On “Shelf Warmer,” it’s both at the same time as she pairs words like, “That’s what you want, that’s not what I want, return policy,” with a break beat and fluttering guitar. And it’s simultaneous on the thump of “I Don’t Miss My Mind,” which sighs spectral gasps around her psychedelic monologuing: “The color water, electric mirror.” It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s not always enjoyable, but it’s something you feel either way.

Her goal on The Collective, as was her goal with Sonic Youth, is to subvert listeners’ expectations. Gordon will turn 71 next month, and she’s made one of the most daring albums of her career. If you want to get it though, you have to turn it up and submit.