Album Review: Kim Gordon – The Collective

[Matador; 2024]

It’s hard to imagine Kim Gordon outside of her iconic status in pop culture. Like the other larger-than-life woman of avant-garde music – Throbbing Gristle’s Cosey Fanny Tutti – she seems to always have existed, somewhere outside of the records we associate with the name: a cosmic postmodern goddess in the olympian sense, distilling the meaning of cool into a person. The majority of people you’ll ask to pick will name Kim as their favourite Sonic Youth member – Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox famously once announced he wanted to be like her, for fuck’s sake. Still, Gordon’s work in the band was at times the most inaccessible, non-Euclidean, the roots of which can be traced to her background in visual art: harmonic noise from someone who never considered themselves a musician.

So in a way, it’s not surprising whatsoever Gordon’s work post-Sonic Youth was the one to hold the most interest. While Lee would go on to seek a Zen-like harmony in classic rock iconography and Thurston continued the familiar Sonic Youth oeuvre of tension fuelled guitar string poetry on his own, Gordon was more interested in questions of texture and body-music. In a way, she sought to reinvent herself, a woman who had entered her 60s, a mom whose kids had left home, unable and unwilling to sit still and fade away. An icon keen on questioning what status means when everyone would just expect more of the same.

The Collective (only Gordon’s second official solo album after 2019’s No Home Record) is striking precisely because Kim abandons the image styled by others. Over the course of 41 minutes, she crafts a brutalist landscape of trap-like industrial, musique concrète in its truest sense. But then, this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Gordon: with 1989’s Whitey Album, her band explored music at its most percussive and immediate. Released under the pseudonym Ciccone Youth, the record can be seen as a conceptual re-imagination of New York’s  landscape as musical farce – from Madonna to Run-D.M.C., incorporating philosophical ideas of John Cage (“Silence”) and Abel Ferrara. Reimagining The White Album via D.O.A. – The Third And Final Report of Throbbing Gristle, Gordon dove headfirst into the no-wave spoken word piece “G-Force” and the hammering Beastie Boys-mutation “Making the Nature Scene”. Yes, it’s incredibly ironic that culture has eaten itself to the point where Sonic Youth’s most obscure album can be argued as the progenitor of trap. Guess that comes with being an olympian…

Interestingly enough, a lot of The Collective isn’t only indulging in trap: like Ciccone Youth, Gordon uses a specific palette as reference to map generational perspective. Her choices resemble the Zoomer soundtrack of masculine hyper-virility, of Corpse’s “E-Girls Are Ruining My Life” and TikTok’s Giga-Chad-Phunk: all blown out speakers and goon-cave machismo. 

If that’s too niche for the older members of the audience, here’s the boomer translation: it’s got more in common with Big Black’s Lungs than The Fall’s Room to LiveSongs about edging. Following that thought, The Collective is closely tied to Ramleh’s concept of ‘Bleak Psychedelia’

This also makes sense when Gordon repeatedly refers to these songs as “realistic”: like the decidedly feminist art of her precursors (Chantal Akerman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath), her new album is concerned with journaling everyday horrors of banality. Opener “BYE BYE” rattles off a packing list before departure (“Hoodie, toothpaste, brush, foundation / Contact solution / Mascara / Lip mask, eye mask, ear plugs”). Hidden within, the line “Cigarettes for Keller”, referencing Gordon’s older brother – an outsider that suffered intense schizophrenia and has a complicated history – who passed away in 2023. It’s not unintentional Kim describes him as having “the sort of Jesus / Manson look”. When he died and the crematorium attendant pressed for what his job is, Kim couldn’t name one, until she settled on “poet”. 

Releasing Keller’s journals as printed collections possibly informed The Collective more than Gordon realises. There’s no overarching narrative in her words, no cohesive theme, just snapshots of brief moments, like an insomniac wrestling with grim topics. Short films, reels maybe, more so than cohesively composed songs. And yet, there’s plenty of order in the industrial beats, with every detour the product of intuitive writing, thoroughly thought out. 

This is evident in the use of degradation within the album’s sonics: “The Candy House” is characterised by heavy digital artefacts, slowly eliminating elements (first mids and highs, then bass) and later drenching Kim’s vocals in a series of filters that insinuate an element of body horror. Guitars are hidden, and when they appear often out of focus: in “I Don’t Miss My Mind” they shriek like a wounded animal, while on single “I’m a Man” they are reduced to the gurgling sound of large factory machinery. On “Tree House”, their burgeoning feedback hides a piano melody that is only fully audible briefly, like a brief childhood memory appearing.

It’s a curious question just how much influence returning producer Justin Raisen had on the album’s sound – an oddball that has worked with Drake and Lil Yachty, John Cale and Yves Tumor. Judging from “G-Force”, The Collective is thoroughly, classic Kim, but many of the odder choices – such as a truly annoying autotune appearance – seem to stem from deep collaborative dialogue. “The Believers”’ strange steel drumming comes to mind, which places the noise track into some kind of cavernous, hellish strip club.

At the same time, these moments occasionally battle with Gordon’s approach, as they lack subtlety: the aforementioned autotune’s effect in “Psychedelic Orgasm” is more actively nauseating (the ghost of an especially grating mainstream pop era) than suggestively post-human. It’s that cognitive dissonance that makes The Collective so hard to pin down, and allows for it to be easily dismissed – is this how Boomers felt when they first heard Tin Machine, generating the myth that one of Bowie’s most rewarding decades was unlistenable noise?

It’s an interesting comparison point, because Bowie’s 90s work was characterised by immense tension and a boundless creativity. The same grim, apocalyptic spirit inhabits The Collective, but where Bowie chose the cyberpunk visions of William Gibson and the cosmic horror of David Lynch as inspiration, Gordon is setting her sight on the splintered identity that the intricate relationship of smart phones and online spaces conjure and the culture they create.

Bowie questioned transgressive performance art’s influence on the coming millennium, whereas Gordon attacks media imagery that uses music and discourse to reframe the body as inherently evil. Maybe that’s why she chooses to sing about objects over individuals: bowling trophies (“Trophies”) or a tacky and emotionless gift (“Shelf Warmer”) communicate how meaningless our quest for acceptance, achievement and affirmation has become. Still, it’s these two songs which seem to slow the album down – in their conceptual density, there’s little room for air, and their aura of Shellac and Liars makes them seem somewhat derivative retreats of bygone eras.

It’s curious to discuss influences, because strung up onto a larger canvas and observed as a body of work, a lot of The Collective seems an homage to a past that is threatening to fade away. The car-alarm in “BYE BYE” is a sound so familiar that it seems to gradually vanish from our periphery. “I’m a Man” reads masculinity as a list of failures: aimlessness as a consequence of losing societal value, drifting in frustration and loneliness. “Dream Dollar” stylistically reconnects with an entire genealogy of electronic musicians (The Normal, Suicide, Throbbing Gristle) that imagined a counter-culture to confront the dystopian dehumanisation we now glimpse in our reality, with no natural enemies or regulating force currently left in sight. There’s even a self-reference (to “Shadow of a Doubt”) in “Shelf warmer”, when Gordon repeats “kiss me!”, but without the sensual suggested taboo of the EVOL track. 

There’s nothing left to anticipate or dream about anymore. It’s unclear if Gordon sees the album as an attack on those lifestyles, aesthetics and philosophies, or if she understands herself as just a chronic of despair. In this, The Collective becomes difficult to read, or consume. Many of its direct progenitors would dissect these topics with violent poetry of architecture and split bodies, or – like the wired no wave circle – express frustration through short, disfigured sonic bursts that barely lasted an EP. Gordon chooses larger tapestries that elude classification, only to then contrast them with incidental prose and corporeal gridlock.

In its gestalt, the album eludes an easy approach of classification. Some of it is genuinely clever, verging on brilliance, and inherently memorable. Other tracks seem too comfortable in their procedures, shock or individuality absent. Are they meant to elicit this response, communicate a sense of foreboding, glacial banality? If Gordon had announced The Collective as a satirical work, many would have swallowed it – but Gordon doesn’t really do parody, except for when she does, like when she recorded a karaoke take of her singing “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer for Whitey Album

Maybe it’s best digested without any pretence of it being all that deep – or maybe it can only be fully grasped when every line clicks into each other and some deeper cosmic philosophy is unearthed. No matter which way you try to approach it, you’re confronted with a snake that eats its own tail – possibly intended, as the album’s final moments loop back to the opening of “BYE BYE”. But then what is the verdict of scrolling through TikTok shorts for half an hour? What are the sounds we hear and the sights we see; and what do they do to us? Only a god could answer these questions, and besides protean Kim, they’ve remained rather absent lately.