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Body/Head’s ‘Coming Apart’: Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon Rises Snarling From the Ashes

Body/Head at Noise Pop 2013 / Photo by Miikka Skaffari/FilmMagic
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Label: Matador

Kim Gordon is getting the last word. As each member of Sonic Youth has gone solo successively since the band’s shocking 2011 breakdown, we’ve gotten a dissonant post-mortem, a better understanding of how the quartet’s parts made the whole. So Coming Apart, her debut double-album with guitarist Bill Nace as Body/Head, feels like a glorious revelation of her strengths: It makes clear she was the soul of Sonic Youth, now standing free in sharp relief against that body of work, reframing what we thought we knew.

It’s hard not to view Coming Apart through the prism of Gordon’s transformation these past two years: After decades of seemingly ceding the spotlight to former husband/bandmate Thurston Moore, we now get a New Yorker profile that recasts her as an empty-nesting cool mom with a chicken in her oven, Tim Riggins in her head, hip-hop on her stereo, and a philandering ex in her past. Refusing to bear the myth of her union any longer, the sanctity since spent, Gordon spoke freely of Moore’s infidelity; he posted “Get Over It,” seemingly in response, on his new band Chelsea Moving Light’s Facebook page. Everything falls apart. Their marriage was special; their divorce was not. She spoke of figuring out who she was now, outside of this band and marriage that defined her, outside of the daily duties of motherhood, returning to her art.

Perhaps this explains why much of Coming Apart is about women’s roles — their duty, their identity. Gordon sings of the murderess, the mistress, the actress, the “good little housewife” who beckons us to her sofa and asks, “Do you want ice?” The songs are threaded with desperation and desire, detailing their service of and proximity to male power — both the possession and loss of it. Gordon’s Sonic Youth work often had a corporeal focus, approaching a woman’s body as contested land (“Swimsuit Edition,” “Tunic”); here, the songs combine external narratives — a woman using her body in the world, where she accrues value through (male) desire or ministrations — with internal strife. We get private reflections of soft gazes, drifting bodies, lifted legs, offered hands, the desire to remain whole. “I don’t want anything,” she sings on “Actress”; “I want to touch,” she intones on “Frontal.” It’s an album of dis/connection between the body and the mind, and between the body and the world.

Nace fits seamlessly into this feminine cosmos — Gordon has aptly described him as having “girl energy” (for a dude), which makes him the perfect, squalling accompaniment to this thematic heaviness. Kim has suggested that SY fans will be disappointed by Body/Head, but she’s wrong: The duo crafts careening noise and jutting, sensual drones, and while they riff on pop forms, they’re free of verse/chorus structures. The album itself feels improvisational, but not loose; recorded live, it features very few edits or overdubs. Nace has the same ecclesiastical regard for Merzbow as Gordon’s previous musical partners, but the duo’s symbiosis is distinct here, the way Nace undergirds and reacts; their guitar dialogue sounds colloquial, intuitive.

This is mostly her show, of course, though occasionally he dominates, filling every bit of space with guitar-howl. Other times, Nace contributes a single showy bit, like when he launches a pack of feedback fireworks on “Can’t Help You,” while Gordon coos a punk redraft of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”: “Take my hand / Take it to the boss sea…lay down easy.” To be born again? Maybe. Coming Apart seems bent on a kind of transcendence, an act that changes who we are in the world. On “Actress,” she sings of an eager character who wonders, “That dress / Will it make me a star?” “The Last Mistress” features a formless man shaped by a woman; “Frontal” describes someone made weak in the presence of another.

The album doesn’t have much of an arc — it goes dark and stays there. Though it’s true that the first two songs have a static, meditative quality, and then, seven minutes in, we get to “The Last Mistress,” whose title alone feels like a bit of a bombshell given the TMZ-grade intel we’ve gotten on the end of her marriage. (The last? Does that mean there were more?) The guitars build tension while she sings, “The last mistress / Pissing like a dog / Territorial marking,” accenting it all like some comic-book pooch: “Woof! Woof!” Then comes “Actress,” a song of transactions: She wants stardom, and our desire, our gaze is what makes that possible. Gordon shouts the “HARD! HARD! HARD!” refrain, landing on the “huh” to the point that it sounds like panting, suggesting desperation and carnal mashing. Is it a command? A description? Her delivery of the line is flat, but with a theatrical flourish, a simulacrum of porn dialogue — a kind of comment on the fantasy, and a culture that requires women to fulfill roles, to be actresses in their everyday lives.

Coming Apart‘s halfway point, “Can’t Help You,” is a short respite — a refusal to be dragged down — that dovetails into two tracks referencing songs popularized by Nina Simone circa 1968: Simone’s Hair-borne medley of “Ain’t Got No/I Got My” is reborn here as “Ain’t,” whereas “Black” is a riff on the standard “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” though it also owes a debt to the strangulated Patty Waters version, as Gordon spends a sing-song 13 minutes mewling, “I love the ground on which he stands” with feral, cloying lovesickness. She seems to be mocking true love as she bellows, sending up teenage naïveté as the guitars go ugly. That discomfort is only topped by the album-ending “Frontal,” 17 minutes of desire and domination, Gordon keening, “You would’ve killed me / Had you not raped me” over and over, followed by a vow of resistance: “You’re not gonna cut me in two.”

At no other time in her career has Gordon been so forceful, so in her own power. As often as Sonic Youth broached narratives of women’s lives and struggles, it’s hard to imagine them ever doing a song like “Frontal.” Perhaps that was all ramping up to this: Kim Gordon in her actualized prime, untethered and in true service of her art, going as deep and dark as you can in a song, in a sound, the ferocious phoenix diving back down into the smoldering ash because there is nothing left to lose.