A Thousand Leaves is the group's first major album to be recorded in their private Manhattan studio, dubbed Echo Canyon. There are several references to France on A Thousand Leaves. On the CD label the phrase "mille feuille" is crossed out and "a thousand leaves" is written under it. The name of the first song, "Contre le sexisme", means "against sexism" in French. "French Tickler" refers to a sex toy of the same name. It was Thurston Moore who came up with the title of the album, which is inspired by Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
A Thousand Leaves was released on May 12, 1998 by DGC Records. As of July 1999, the album has sold 54,000 copies in the U.S. according to Nielsen SoundScan. The song "Sunday" was released as a single.
A Thousand Leaves has generally been well received by professional critics. Robert Christgau praised the album, giving it the highest score of any Sonic Youth album to date, A+, and calling it "mature, leisurely, rather beautiful, perhaps content. But it's neither complacent nor same-old, and after it's settled into their, I'm sorry, oeuvre, it will rank toward the top for everybody except permanent revolutionaries [...] Awash in connubial ardor and childhood bliss, undergirded by the strength-through-strangeness of angry tunings grown familiar, it's the music of a daydream nation old enough to treasure whatever time it finds on its hands. Where a decade ago they plunged and plodded, drunk on the forward notion of the van they were stuck in, here they wander at will, dazzled by sunshine, greenery, hoarfrost and machines that go squish in the night."
Rolling Stone opined, "their best-made records radiate the thrilling feeling that they stopped shy of adding finishing touches. It's why everybody has a different favorite disc of the band's: They all seem so unprogrammed, so highly suggestive. But A Thousand Leaves loses that delicate balance between whimsy and craft in favor of the former. Rather than the idea-every-minute of the last few albums, the songs plod for long stretches. It really does sound like a demo – eleven songs waiting for better organization and cliché removal."Pitchfork called the album "the prettiest Sonic Youth record yet", praising its subtle textures" and calling the songs "aromatherapy, relaxing and vaporous", but that "you get the idea that by this point Sonic Youth can just walk in their studio and crank this stuff out in an afternoon. That's where the resulting inconsistency comes from. The band is too content to merely experiment and jam."The A.V. Club commented, "too rarely does A Thousand Leaves contain fully formed songs [...] Here's hoping Sonic Youth [...] starts completing its ideas before recording them for posterity."