Reminiscing about Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves finds me recalling a short-lived friendship.
Like many, I had a friend who I spent a lot of time with for a short while. Hanging out with her was my first taste of punk rock in the sense that, she used to put the tops back on week old beers and give them to me to drink while Sleater-Kinney, Le Tigre or Bratmobile scratched out the speakers in her living room.
Somewhere in the haze of that time, she decided we should go to Austin to see her sister and A Thousand Leaves was brought along. The album’s hypnotic excess really jived with us then and made a proper soundtrack for our jejune escapades.
We arrived in Austin, very drunk, at her sisters around 3am. Her sister gave me a haircut while her boyfriend played Eric’s Trip records til morning. I could say more but the best thing that come out of it was me searching out a copy of Love Tara not long after the fiasco.
Not a great story, I know, but A Thousand Leaves was a fitting soundtrack for us then and continues to be an intriguing listen now. Tracks like Wildflower Soul and Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg) are some of the best songs the band has written in some ways. Their long passages of fractured jamming reveal the later focused work found on Murray Street and moves forward some of the desultory work found on Washing Machine. Both songs exhibit SY’s slow progression away from cimmerian blasts of feedback towards more serene experiments – a path that would be taken even further on 2000’s NYC Ghosts & Flowers.
Lee Ranaldo’s song contributions on A Thousand Leaves (like on many SY records) are terrific. Hoarfrost and Karen Koltrane are both wonderful compositions that not only show Lee’s strength as a songwriter but also SY’s willingness to take ATL to a truly meditative place. On both of these pieces, the band really allows themselves (and the listener) room to get pulled into the vortex.
A Thousand Leaves is still a polarizing record for many SY fans. Many reviews accused the album of being excessive, unfinished, and shapeless. Rolling Stone even wrote, “nearly every song is a supermonolithic bummer.” I never heard A Thousand Leaves as anything but a beautiful exercise from a band looking for (and finding) a new space to inhabit. It’s an exercise we all have try at some point in our lives or more accurately, at many points in our lives.