Pre-listen: I’m about to write it off, partly because of its garbage album cover (generally speaking, these guys don’t know what they’re doing on that front), partly because of its nonexistent reception (when the words “underrated” and “Sonic Youth” are the topic of conversation, the first choice seems to be Washing Machine) and partly because of the song lengths (Sonic Youth, like the second half of their name implies, never really had a strong sense of direction).
1st listen: Yup. A write off. Keep “Sunday” – which basically follows the Sonic Youth formula for pop anyway (riff, verse, noise, verse. See: “Silver Rocket,” the single edit of “The Diamond Sea,” “Unmade Bed,” etc.) – ditch the rest.
And that, kids, is what we call “confirmation bias” – a tendency to look for information that keeps in line with our biases and reject things that don’t. I was an idiot, in other words.
A Thousand Leaves, is in many ways, a reaction to Sonic Youth’s discography leading up to it. Their pre-good days (1981-84) were – to be frank – not very good. They were Glenn Branca, if Glenn Branca didn’t know how to play guitar half as well, so they hid that fact by adding vocals to the formula, but they hadn’t a clue that singing needn’t mean shouting. Their days of being touted as the next Nirvana (1990-94) was a huge sign that they were anything but. Washing Machine, that followed, had them trying to return back to Daydream Nation-like structures, hindered by Geffen records who had an ideal that they wanted them to live by (for example, demanding certain songs be cut in half). Here, their major record deal is no more, and they’re allowed to do whatever the fuck they want to like when they first started (tellingly, they rehire Confusion is Sex producer Wharton Tiers), but there’s two major differences: they have access to a better studio and thus, a better sound, and more importantly, they are better songwriters.
Now, A Thousand Leaves ain’t perfect. I used to look at people who hate Kim Gordon with a combined look of bewilderment and sadness, but considering her contributions in A Thousand Leaves, I sort of understand where they’re coming from. There’s zero doubt in my mind when I say this: “Contre le sexisme” is the worst Sonic Youth opener since their aforementioned pre-good days, which is saying a lot considering the decade and a half’s worth of great openers in the interim. Still though, it’s easily my favorite Gordon track here. This one is all about atmosphere; the restrained guitar feedback envelops you like a mist. Gordon’s calling out “Alice! Oh, Alice! Come back, he’s just a kitten,” and the even more haunting way she repeats that last line makes the entire song worth keeping. Meanwhile, I originally thought that Steve Shelley’s contributions to the track were useless – bullshit. His drumming is simple, keeping in perfect tone with the song’s atmosphere, and easily the most lyrical aspect of the entire song. Finally, it’s a lot better than their original choice for an opener (“The Ineffable Me”) because it prepares you for what’s on the rest of the album, as if to say, “If you’re looking for another Daydream Nation, this isn’t it.” Oh, and the way it just pushes you into the pool that is “Sunday?” Wonderful. Both “Female Mechanic Now On Duty” and “The Ineffable Me” work with punchy riffs, but that’s about it really. On the other end of things, closer “Heather Angel” can easily be cut into three distinct sections. The first is dreamy, continuing the same feel of “Snare Girl” that preceded it, and the last is a 2-minute rousing charge towards the uncertain. What’s in the interim is what bothers me – featuring one of her most obnoxious vocals since the early 80s, saved only by Steve Shelley who doesn’t come in until halfway through. Should’ve ended with “Snare Girl,” in my opinion.
Alright, that’s enough of the bad stuff, so we can talk about the good. Thurston Moore has never been the best vocalist (despite having the prettiest voice of all the members, in my opinion) or the best lyricist (despite the fact that he’s always been interested in poetry—I get the feeling he only signed up to be the vocalist in a rock band because more people would’ve listened to him than if he did street poetry like he wanted). I mean, “Tonight’s the day, candle?” That’s pretty, but what the fuck that does that even mean? But for some reason, he does both his best singing and his best lyrics on A Thousand Leaves—picture the stuff of “The Diamond Sea” stretched for an album’s worth. There’s the consonance of “The colors run off / Blue is bashful / Green is my goal” of “Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsbourg)” and “All these sun stained stations / It’s you under the stairs girl / With a snare girl, sounding salutations” of “Snare Girl.” On the other side of things, there’s the simple beauty of “Wildflower Soul,” written for Coco, his daughter, or “Sunday,” because when you’re dealing with sex, directness comes better than beating around the bush (pun not even remotely intended). But, as any poet will tell you, it’s not just the words—it’s how he recites them. The opening lines of “Hits of Sunshine” have plenty of breathing room in between, the words lingering in the air until the next one comes along, “Today I / Said goodbye / To my conflicted goddess…” And with each pause in “Sunday,” there’s genuine sexual longing, “You – you will set it free,” “Now – now it’s come to me,” “Why – can’t I set you free? / Will you – do the same for me?” and “With you – Sunday never ends.” Meanwhile, I don’t think he’s ever sung like he does on “Snare Girl” either before or after it – his voice verges dangerously close to cracking under the strain of whispering, “I bring you news from the kingdom of disciples in ruin,” or “Take these palms I’ve been given.” Listen to the way he sings, “Behold the child,” stretching the word and moving his voice in a manner that I hadn’t heard him do before.
But anyone who knows the band will tell you that the reason to listen to New York City’s biggest apple isn’t the vocals or lyrics, its the guitars. Yup – and Sonic Youth’s guitars haven’t been this inspired since the 80s. Lee Ranaldo, who I always took to be the weakest contributor in their discography, hands in two of the album’s strongest numbers. The guitars in “Hoarfrost” are the skygazing ones of Bad Moon Rising’s “Intro” (one of those good openers that I talked about), just complete with a bass guitar this time. It features his most inspired singing yet, form the way he inflects his voice (starting at the line, “High above like a spider”) to the melodic and hopeful way he sings “‘We’ll know where when we get there’ you said / And we both knew we would.” His other contribution, “Karen Koltrane” is just as good. The pinging guitars that start at the 2:17 mark remind me of the same ones that made “Shadow of a Doubt” my favorite track on EVOL, they just sound more aggressive this time ‘round. The track’s second half is an instrumental journey, just as hopeful as the lyrics in “Hoarfrost,” though I could’ve done without the stupid last minute’s worth of high-pitched nothings and instrumental fuckery. Elsewhere, the eight minutes between the sung parts of “Hits of Sunshine” are sort of directionless, I s’pose, but it doesn’t phase me. The guitars sound like sunlight squishing through your curtains. And forget what I said about “Sunday.” That one joins both “Sunday Morning” and “Everyday Is Like Sunday” on the list of songs that are about that crummy day (I vaguely recall, statistically speaking, on average, it’s the day that sees more suicides than any other day of the week). It’s about sex on Sundays, in case you hadn’t figured it out from the lyrics or my analysis of them – listen to the way it starts slow before building into a workable rhythm. Listen to way a second, noisier guitar helps the Glenn Branca-inspired chug shifts chords. Listen to that climax! – it’s like the guitars are literally fucking one another, climbing on top of one another to figure out the best way to do it and when they’ve finally settled on a position, Steve Shelley doubles up on the drums to guide them to where they need to go.
Closing notes that don’t fit the rest of the review:
1. Their third best album. After Daydream Nation and Goo.
2. Considering the band’s current indefinite hiatus (which will probably last forever), there’s something sad about the fact that they named this album so because they planned on making a thousand albums. Yeah, I know they’ve released a fuck ton (and I’m grateful as a ton of fuck), but still.
3. Robert Christgau gave this one an A+, the only Sonic Youth album to earn that distinction (Daydream Nation, in case you’re wondering and in case you think he’s so pretentious that you won’t bother checking his site to see what he gave it, got in A). He seems to know his shit, so listen to him.