15 Years Ago: Sonic Youth’s ‘A Thousand Leaves’ Album Released
By the time Sonic Youth released their 10th album on May 12, 1998, the honeymoon was over between the veteran NYC noise band, its deep-pocket record company, modern-rock radio and fans. After a brief fling with alt-rock radio at the start of the ‘90s – right after they signed with the same record company that would make Nirvana super-huge – the group began growing restless with their relative mainstream success. So they pulled back on 1994’s ‘Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star,’ a half-compromise that sounded like one.
On 1995’s ‘Washing Machine,’ Sonic Youth inched closer to their indie roots, filling the space with epic sprawling set pieces that were as much about mood as they were about songs. So by the time the band headed into its Manhattan studio in 1997 to start work on ‘A Thousand Leaves,’ everyone was pretty much expecting a careless shrug – a full dive into the unstructured noise rock they were making before their major-label deal went through.
And that’s pretty much what Sonic Youth delivered: a noisy, shapeless slab of art-rock that comes off like a personal head-clearing. To this day, ‘A Thousand Leaves’ (which celebrates its 15th anniversary today) is one of the band’s most difficult and neglected albums. From the opening ‘Contre Le Sexisme’ to the somewhat tuneful ‘Sunday’ to the 11-minute freakout ‘Hits of Sunshine (For Allen Ginsberg),’ the record sounds pieced together and made by a group declaring its independence.
And in a way, ‘A Thousand Leaves’ stands as Sonic Youth’s freedom call. They’d been heading this way ever since their first two albums of the ‘90s, the ones that landed them on modern-rock radio. The undisciplined sketches here are as much a reaction to their commercial headway as they are the band’s natural artsy tendencies being set free. The album debuted at No. 85 – not a bad showing for a record like this. But its only single, ‘Sunday,’ didn’t even crack the modern-rock chart. But no worries – Sonic Youth were done with all that. And the new millennium offered plenty of opportunities for creative redemption.
Listen to Sonic Youth's 'A Thousand Leaves'