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At 70, Kim Gordon is still alt-rock’s coolest icon

For Kim Gordon, boundaries exist only to be pushed constantly. ‘The Collective’, her third solo album, is a testament to that artistic freedom

A group portrait of Sonic Youth, 1989.
A group portrait of Sonic Youth, 1989. (Getty Images)

In late January, when everybody was already anticipating Kim Gordon’s new solo album (it came out on 8 March), The Times, London, ran an interview of Gordon with the headline, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon: “I don’t feel cool”. Then Gordon, who will turn 71 in April, did the coolest thing. She shared The Times interview as an Instagram post with the comment: “I haven’t read it as I don’t have a subscription”.

Gordon really is one of the coolest icons in alternative rock, and her name has been synonymous with that genre ever since she co-founded Sonic Youth with her former husband Thurston Moore in 1981. Sonic Youth were pioneers in the alternative scene, weaving together dissonance, melody, and social commentary. Gordon, who played the bass guitar, often detuned and abrasive, became a signature element of their sound. Her vocals, a cool counterpoint to Moore’s more expressive style, delivered poetic lyrics that tackled themes of alienation, consumerism, and the complexities of human relationships. Her bass playing wasn’t focused on traditional root lines. Instead, she used it as a textural element, often using distortion, feedback, and effects pedals to create discordant and droning soundscapes.

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Sonic Youth broke up in 2011 following Gordon and Thurston’s divorce, but the groundbreaking band left an indelible influence on contemporary music, shaping the soundscape of generations of bands that have emerged since the 1980s, inspiring them to challenge convention. There are few rock musicians today that do not acknowledge the impact that Sonic Youth has had on them.

Gordon has been a late bloomer. Before she became a musician, she was an artist, a beach-blonde Californian with icy eyes who moved to New York, and was already 28 when Sonic Youth was formed. After their disbandment, she embarked on a solo career that allowed her to fully explore her own creative vision. The Collective, her third solo album, is a testament to that artistic freedom. Reuniting with producer Justin Raisen (who also worked on her 2019 debut, No Home Record), Gordon dives into a soundscape that is both familiar and refreshingly new. Raisen’s signature “damaged” production, characterised by distorted beats and dub influences, provides a stark backdrop for Gordon’s signature vocals and lyrical explorations.

In an interview, Gordon calls The Collective an attempt to capture the feeling of “absolute craziness” surrounding us—a world saturated with information, misinformation, and competing narratives. The opening song, BYE BYE, for example, features a relentless trap beat that provides a background to Gordon’s vocals that seem detached as, amid squalls of distorted guitar, she sullenly lists out mundane objects that she is seemingly packing for a trip.

When BYE BYE was released as a single before the album came out, on Tik Tok, the ubiquitous destination for short-form mobile videos, teenagers half the age of Gordon’s daughter began video-recording themselves as they followed Gordon’s pithy packing routine as she sang: “Sleeping pills, sneakers, boots, black dress/ White tee, turtleneck, iBook, power cord, medications/ Button down, laptop, hand cool, body lotion, Bella Freud.”

Noise and fury often form a theme of Gordon’s music. In past collaborations with others, for example, in Body/Head, a duo she formed with the experimental American guitarist Bill Nace, the music is a captivating fusion of noise, experimentation, and rock sensibilities. On The Collective, though, it is not all about noise and fury. Perhaps because of her collaboration with producer Raisen (who has worked with artists such as the rappers, Drake and Lil Yachty), there is a foray into hip hop influences. On The Candy House, the underlying beat is unmistakably hip hop as Gordon sings lyrics that form a sort of meta-fiction. The song is inspired by a book of the same name by the American novelist, Jennifer Egan, a sequel to her famous 2010 book of interrelated short stories, A Visit From The Goon Squad.

Much of Gordon’s lyrics on The Collective’s songs are stream of consciousness, delivered in her trademark deadpan style over industrial sounds that are matched with trap beats. Trap, originally a form of southern US hip hop that emerged in the 1990s, is characterised by rolling kick drums and bass thumps alongside melodic guitar riffs. That sound is not what Sonic Youth’s fans may be familiar with and in that respect it can be challenging to get into the album at first listen but when it eventually sinks in, listeners will be able to see how more than 40 years after she embarked on her musical career, Gordon is still a sonic disruptor for whom boundaries exist only to be pushed constantly.

Besides being a musical icon, Gordon is also a prolific visual artist and has created installations and sculptures that often explore themes of feminism. In the 1990s, Gordon founded X-Girl, a women’s fashion brand with a feminine yet rebellious aesthetic, and she has written at least two books: a memoir, Girl In A Band, and a curated scrapbook of self-portraits, Kim Gordon: No Icon.

Kim Gordon is a true artistic force. Her work in music, art, and fashion exemplifies a constant evolution and a refusal to be confined by labels. The Collective is just the latest chapter in her remarkable journey.


The Lounge List

Five tracks by Kim Gordon from ‘The Collective’ to bookend your week

1. ‘BYE BYE’

2. ‘The Candy House’

3. ‘I Don’t Miss My Mind’

4. ‘I’m A Man’

5. ‘Psychedelic Orgasm’


First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. He posts @sanjoynarayan

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