Happy 20th Anniversary to Sonic Youth’s tenth studio album A Thousand Leaves, originally released May 12, 1998.
"We're having children, we're getting older, let's just cool out a little bit and build this workshop, and go that way, work that route,” was Sonic Youth’s attitude around A Thousand Leaves, as described by co-founder, guitarist, and singer Thurston Moore to Billboard back in the spring of 1998. The band’s tenth studio album represented an indulgent return to their subversive, high concept recordings of the past, with a hint of middle-aged malaise. Its precursor Washing Machine, released three years prior in 1995, signaled a revival of droning, feedback-heavy art rock, but A Thousand Leaves brought Sonic Youth back to their roots.
Originally titled Mille Feuille, the French phrase has a double meaning: “a thousand leaves” or delicate pastry made from several layers of imperfect, paper-thin cakes. The album is dense and intellectual, but with their signature grit sprinkled throughout. A Thousand Leaves was only one slice of the cake though, as they simultaneously released four other highly experimental albums of jam session excess as part of the SYR series.
A Thousand Leaves was recorded at Sonic Youth’s studio built in 1997 in Downtown Manhattan from the earnings gained by headlining Lollapalooza. The studio was new, but the band returned to a proven formula for recording, bringing in Wharton Tiers (Confusion Is Sex) to produce. Harnessing the same punk attitude that defined the band in 1983, A Thousand Leaves is authentically Sonic Youth, but a little lighter and a little longer.
The first track “Contre Le Sexisme” is classic Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon layers on a thick affectation, sounding both afraid and enticing. She is a bit over the top and seems to be in on the joke, when shouting, “Oh Alice, come back he's just a kitten / He's just a kitten.” There’s a sinister layer to the meandering lyrics, setting the tone for the remaining 70 minutes of A Thousand Leaves.
“Sunday” feels like an allegory for what Sonic Youth meant in 1998. A pop song with teeth, it has some catchy riffs. Moore and Lee Ranaldo are dueling on guitars. It was even accompanied by a music video directed by Harmony Korine (underground!) and Macaulay Culkin (mainstream!). They were straddling the line of success with one foot on a major label contract and the other lingering in the New York art world.
“Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg)” lolls through the middle of the record. A Thousand Leaves’ improvisational origins are instantly apparent in a track that hovers around free jazz. Referenced as a “musical toast to the end of the millennium,” the album captures a sound similar to what Sonic Youth was born from, but takes its time, remembering things in softer focus.
The band takes on late ‘90s pop culture on the album with “Female Mechanic Now on Duty.” The song is described in the liner notes of the album as being, “inspired by 'Bitch' by that famous Lilith-type female singer, Meredith Brooks. It's an answer song." And while not as massively popular as the anthem for unapologetic women (A Thousand Leaves reached #85 on the Billboard album charts), “Female Mechanic Now on Duty” bemoans society’s expectations with a coarse power Brooks was not working with.
When released, A Thousand Leaves received mixed reviews. Most critics could agree that Ranaldo and Moore were excellent guitar players, their experimentation mostly paying off in gratifying solos. Gordon sustained more directed criticism for her contrived vocals. But 20 years later, it looks more like that criticism should have been reserved for the girl who wouldn’t go out with the rock critic. Her affectation is sharp and clever, a smart juxtaposition against the Sarah McLachlan vocals of the time.
For Gordon, A Thousand Leaves expresses the audacity of a woman to be so deliberate in her alienation. There is something extra subversive about jarring vocals, when someone much easier to listen to is standing a few feet away. Moore’s voice has great depth throughout the album, with effortless delivery. There is comfort and trust in their production, with a fluency missing from their earliest records. Some of the DIY charm has been washed off, but the curiosity is still there.