First things first: despite their obvious equal billing on Coming Apart’s cover, it is inevitable that Body/Head, the new performing duo of experimental guitar heroes Kim Gordon and Bill Nace, will be viewed and discussed primarily in terms of Gordon. Sure, Nace has his own history as a mainstay of the scene and frequent collaborator with the likes of Chris Corsano and Paul Flaherty, but Gordon is something of a “superstar,” the kind of musician who gets profiled in The New Yorker and makes guest appearances on Girls. To those of us who’ve grown up with Sonic Youth, and even to those who haven’t, it’s hard not to approach Body/Head as “the new Kim Gordon project.”
Indulging that tendency briefly, the most immediately striking aspect of this project is its relative freedom compared to Gordon’s past work. The limited setup undoubtedly contributes to this: just as the removal of the “chordal” piano freed Ornette Coleman from the strictures of harmony, so too did the removal of drums and other elements seem to free Gordon. “Actress” is based on the kind of picked, eighth-note guitar pulse — a recurring motif throughout the album — that used to give Sonic Youth songs such cascading momentum; here though, in the absence of drums or tightly interlocking counterpoints, the rhythm is untethered and promises nothing so constant. Every moment, in fact, appears to offer a free choice of many possibilities, lending extra expressive weight to each repetition.
The freedom extends to Gordon’s voice, which is a revelation. While her familiar confrontational yell does crop up at times, she also seems to take inspiration from a much wider tradition of vocalists, using styles previously only hinted at: purring like Patti Smith at her most mysterious in “Abstract,” jumping octaves like Ari Up in “Last Mistress,” and bending notes like Bessie Smith in “Aint.” The choice of material reflects this, with a couple of standards among the originals: “Aint” is a reimagining of Nina Simone’s “Aint Got No/I Got My,” and “Black” is a gorgeously droning version of the traditional folk song “Black is the Color (Of my True Love’s Hair).”
Nace allows and encourages this freedom, of course, with his varied, elastic playing. For Nace, who is used to long-form jams, these are actually relatively tight forms. Sometimes it falls on him to squeeze his noisy improvisations into small, coherent compositions, and here he proves more than capable through how gracefully “Last Mistress” reaches its climax, how brilliantly his outburst of greasy rockabilly playing illustrates Gordon’s line “I’ve got my freedom,” how unexpectedly pretty the outro is on “Black.” At other times, it’s Gordon’s job to give shape to Nace’s freer sounds, as on “Everything Left,” where the almost unintelligible vocals only highlight the humanity of the guitar playing. In the context of Nace’s work, then, this project represents a new accessibility.
It all comes off as genuinely exploratory, with both players testing their own limits, coaxing one another into strange areas and trying to explore the meanings of the sounds. Gordon’s lyrics play into the same concept: lines like, “Dogs, where they piss” and “I love my lover” are evocative, both personal and political, but their inflected delivery and slow repetition questions, obscures, and alters their meanings, as if the project of Body/Head is to tease the sense out of them. It’s a sort of auditory analogue of Gordon’s visual art, in which single tweets are reproduced in paint, reducing their immediate readability but foregrounding their concreteness, their individuality, their expressiveness. It’s also similar to a technique from Body/Head live shows, where films are projected in extreme slow motion, exposing characters’ microexpressions and forcing the audience to consider every implication of dress, gesture, and mise-en-scène. Where the vocals could easily have become the focal point, here they are shifting and ambiguous, hardly any more meaningful in and of themselves than the squeals of guitar.
Coming Apart might well prove to be a transitional work, given its experimental nature and genesis in improvised live performance. But for the moment, it’s surely a worthwhile project for players and listeners alike, an album of unusual synergy, exploration, and focus that expands both artists’ repertoires well beyond genre constructions to create something both unique and replayable.