Kim Gordon doesn't fit the mold of "celebrity divorcee." That's a role better suited for a much younger, more famous type of pop starlet, the kind who enters into a shotgun marriage for the sole purpose of writing a hit single about the inevitable breakup two months later. When Gordon left Thurston Moore, her husband of 27 years and Sonic Youth bandmate for even longer, in 2011, that was some real-life, grown-up shit, even if the details—a suspicious text message, another woman, an ongoing affair—seemed ripped from a Lifetime movie. In proportion to how much Gordon ever made her private life public, the reasons for the separation were no one's business but her own.
But when your marriage is propped up for decades as a model of wedded hipster bliss, fans can be forgiven for taking the split personally. They're going to want to know how it could've possibly fallen apart. They're going to want answers.
That has put Gordon, in particular, in an unfamiliar position. Answering questions has never exactly been her thing. Although the prevailing image of her in popular consciousness is with a bass guitar slung over her shoulder, Gordon has an ambivalent relationship to terms like "musician" and "songwriter." She identifies more as a "visual artist," one with a strong conceptual streak, and isn't apt to pour her life into a song, at least not in explicit, easily readable form. She acknowledges that recording Coming Apart, the new double album from Body/Head, her collaboration with noise guitarist Bill Nace, was a cathartic experience. But anyone expecting this to be her Rumours or Blood on the Tracks—her "divorce album," in other words—is just going to end up more confused.
"I like lyrics to always be ambiguous, but they were as much influenced by [French filmmaker] Catherine Breillat's movies as they were things happening in my life," says Gordon, 60. "I think anytime someone writes a song, you bring something from your life, whether it's emotion or something authentic you've experienced, into it. Then you add other things to it, or try to."
That said, Coming Apart certainly plays like someone processing a personal crisis. Atonal guitars clang and scrape as Gordon, her voice shakier and more fragile than usual, recites snippets of dialogue like "I can only think of you in the abstract" and "I feel so weak, so stupid"; on the tantalizingly titled "Last Mistress," she even woofs like a subservient puppy. She and Nace have taken to describing the music as "scripted improvisation," meaning there's at least some adherence to form, and the effect is to constrict what would otherwise be a free-flowing exploration of noise to a level of intimacy that is almost frightening. It's a challenging, harrowing and, if you stick with it, ultimately rewarding listen.
Obviously, the commercial aspirations for such a project are low, to put it generously, and initially, they were even less than that. Gordon originally recruited Nace, a longtime acquaintance from the music scene in her hometown of Northampton, Mass., to record a cover of "Fever" for a friend's compilation. They came across the phrase "Body/Head" in a book about the films of the aforementioned Breillat. "We thought it was a good name, so we needed to start a band," Gordon says. After putting out a few limited-run EPs on tiny labels, Coming Apart is being released through indie giant Matador, primarily to give live audiences a heads-up: Daydream Nation this ain't.
"Originally, I was just happy to play music and do something I didn't think I'd have to promote at all," Gordon says. "Then we did a bunch of touring in Europe, and it seems like people's expectations were for more Sonic Youth-type songwriting. It's almost like the record is a calling card for playing live or something."
For Gordon's part, her days of "Sonic Youth-type songwriting," it's safe to say, are over. She might not have put the past behind her completely—she's got a lot of past to process, after all, enough that an hour of tortured guitar noise alone isn't going to cut it—but she's getting there. Asked if she aspires to play in a traditional rock band again, Gordon is uncharacteristically straightforward.
"Not really, I don't," she says. "That isn't to say Bill and I wouldn't do an album of more conventional songs. But I feel like I did that for so long. Now I want to do something else.â
SEE IT: Body/Head plays the Time Based Art Festival at the Works at Con-Way, 2170 NW Raleigh St., on Thursday, Sept. 19. 10:30 pm. $15-$20. 21+.