Art

You Can’t Go Home: Kim Gordon’s New Album Embraces the West Coast

Layla Fassa

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“Do you feel more like a Californian or a New Yorker?” the off-camera interviewer asks Kim Gordon. They’re on the roof of the Lower East Side building she was living in at the time, the Empire State Building glowing purple in the background. It was 1988; she had already been in New York for almost a decade and had helped found a band called Sonic Youth seven years earlier, in 1981. This milquetoast question had followed a slew of what’s it like to be a girl in rock-themed queries. “At heart, I’m a Californian and I’ll always be a Californian.” East River wind whipped through her hair. “I just feel much freer here than in California.”

This was just over 30 years ago and that New York doesn’t exist anymore. This was before Sonic Youth broke up, before the Empire State Building was dwarfed in the skyline by newer mega skyscrapers, before everyone moved to LA, and before Gordon moved back to LA. “When you move back to a place, it’s familiar, but nothing is ever the same,” she recently said of the move. Gordon’s new LA is positively Lynchian. It’s glamorous, it’s distorted, it’s banal, a touch grotesque. No Home Record, Gordon’s first solo release, is a disorienting meditation on image and fantasy, LA’s bread and butter.

“How do you fit your reality into something that looks idealized?” Kim Gordon asked rhetorically in one recent interview, referring to images she’d been browsing on Airbnb. She hasn’t used the service very often, she said, but is more into the aesthetics. The home-sharing company’s slogan is, “Belong Anywhere.” Who would’ve thought that Kim Gordon, the lifelong no wave post-punk rocker, would become obsessed with branding and belonging? Of course, things got weird.

“Air BnB” is the earworm of the album. It simultaneously embraces and eviscerates the good-life-on-demand that their slogan promises. It paints Airbnb as a womb made of bubble wrap, blue towels, and bottled water. Gordon wails what is, after “Old Town Road,” the most Americana chorus of 2019: “Airbnb/Gonna set me free!” But it’s on “Paprika Pony” that the album starts sounding 120% twenty-first century made. This four-minute mumblecore trap song places cell phones in the Garden of Eden. It’s best consumed via its TikTok-length video, created by contemporary artist Loretta Fahrenholz, in which the song is cut down to just 61 seconds. Clips that last but a second are spliced together, erratically documenting mundanity-in-motion: hot dogs on a roller-grill, a man jogging on a treadmill, a running faucet.

The album’s producer, Justin Raisen, had a heavy hand in the genre-hopping sounds of No Home Record. He’s helped shape the output of left field pop acts like Santigold and Charli XCX, as well as the uncategorizable experimentalist Yves Tumor. Gordon has said that while rock & roll was once “the music of rebelliousness,” the genres that have taken up that mantle are “hip-hop… alt-girl bands… and some noise music.” With Raisen and Gordon sharing an ear for contemporary rebellion, it comes as no surprise that the album bears traces of more recent forays into the murky avant-garde— art-rock outfit Xiu Xiu, industrial rap trio Death Grips, or the tripped-out trap of Awful Records. The irony, or beauty, of such comparisons is that these acts were doubtless inspired by some of the sounds of Sonic Youth, either directly or via the shifts in grunge and noise that the band influenced in the 1980s and ’90s. Raisen and Gordon, together, are simulating sounds that Gordon pioneered decades ago, but are now so far removed that they seem unique and ahistorical.

Gordon originally expressed reticence about working with a producer, since, “it’s just a conventional way of songwriting.” As the record swings from riffed-out proto-punk on “Murdered Out,” to stripped-down swampy industrial on “Don’t Play It,” the momentum makes sure “conventional” isn’t the first word anyone reaches for. Minimalist, for much of the album, would be a more accurate term, but not in the white-duvet-and-nature-sounds sense. “Cookie Butter” is elemental—language at its bare minimum over a beat that sounds like it was built in a scrapyard.

The standout song of the album is its opening track, “Sketch Artist.” It is hypnotic, Gordon’s melodies hugging close to monotone, an intermittent bass edging in, poised to take over. “In the day, in the sunlight/Dreaming in a tent,” she recites in a voice whispering and husky, a reference to the people of LA currently experiencing homelessness. One person’s Airbnb is another person’s displacement. She’s franker on “Get Yr Life Back”: “The end of capitalism/winners and losers… And the plastic sign you get your life back… Get your life back yoga.” Yoga promises freedom for the winners, paid for in monthly or weekly installments. Just as Gordon once moved to New York for freedom, she turned back west to look for it again.