One of the most original, exciting albums of the year so far.
Since the dissolution of Sonic Youth in 2011, it seems like Kim Gordon has spent more time being what she originally wanted to be—an artist. This doesn’t mean she hasn’t been making music, of course—only that she has been doing so on her own terms, and in a way that more explicitly reflects her experimental and performance-oriented sense of art-making.
Body/Head, her collaboration with guitarist Bill Nace, has previously released a few EPs and the 2013 albumComing Apart, a drone- and feedback-heavy debut inspired by free jazz as much as noise-rock, not to mention spoken-word, as seen in Gordon’s often gut-wrenching and personal lyrics. The album was certainly adventurous and challenging, but it was song-oriented in a way their latest isn’t, and more reminiscent of Gordon’s previous band than its follow-up, which sounds like the duo has truly honed a sound that is all their own.
The Switch, then, sounds even more improvisatory and exploratory than its predecessor, the two members’ guitars engaged in a call-of-response of squalls, reaching out to one another as though across some nameless divide. The album has an epic quality to it, evoking traditional sources alongside esoteric ones, a cross between the Dead Man soundtrack and Sunn O))). Though the few intelligible lyrics still have a personal character, the singing is deconstructed, disembodied, giving the sound a primordial hum that is both intimate and depersonalized.
These aren’t songs, or not exactly. As listeners, we coast through waves of noise, as though listening in on blindfolded guitars walking around a dark room and occasionally bumping into each other and changing each other’s tune, so to speak. The result is disorienting and thrilling, and the use of Gordon’s effects-heavy vocals, cutting in and out as they do so effectively on the second song, “You Don’t Need Me,” heightens the music’s tension and release even more. That same song ends with a soft, delicate whirling buzz of guitar, like a radio searching for its signal, while a series of sung clips and phrases wax and wane into the mix.
After a while, especially on a song like “In the Dark Room,” the music starts to remind one of the ambient, unplaceably industrial-sounding background noise in a film like Lynch’s Eraserhead—in truth, it would not be a bad experiment to try pairing the two.
But one of the album’s best features, it must be said, is that there is no one overarching “mood” to it. One is too busy following its twists and turns, losing oneself, then regaining one’s footing, to settle into one particular mood or another. Rather, the compositions here allow the listener to inhabit a whole host of moods, restlessly questioning each one before another takes its place.
Though, in a sense, one hears a lot less of Gordon one this album—there is very little singing, all told—one hears a lot more of her through the guitar playing, which itself takes on an abstractly “sung” quality without appealing to one’s sense of vocals in any obvious sense. That said, the penultimate track, the ten-minute-long “Change My Brain,” is propelled by her singing, the intensity and feverishness of which matches if not exceeds that of the churning guitars which take on an almost orchestral quality in the song’s last several minutes.
It is hard to sum up an album like this, so perhaps a contradiction will serve as a somewhat fitting conclusion—this is a rock record without a trace of rock music on it. As a result, The Switch can safely be considered one of the most original, exciting albums of the year so far; passionate and cerebral, it makes good on the promise of the band’s name.