EVOL is the third studio album by American alternative rock band Sonic Youth. It was released in May 1986, through SST Records; the band's first release on the label. The album is notable for being the first with new drummer Steve Shelley, replacing Bob Bert, and for showing signs of the band's transition from their no wave past toward a greater alternative rock sensibility.
Despite not being successful at the time, the album received great retrospective praise; Pitchfork said that EVOL "[was] where the seeds of greatness were sown", and placed the album thirty-first on their Top 100 Albums of the 1980s list, alongside Sonic Youth's next two albums, Sister and Daydream Nation, which ranked fourteenth and first, respectively.
In June 1985 during the Bad Moon Rising tour, previous drummer Bob Bert left the band and was replaced by Steve Shelley. The new line-up quickly began working on new material for their third album. The band signed to SST, as by 1986, label founder Greg Ginn was anxious for the label to move away from its American hardcore roots. Sonic Youth took a break from the tour and finished the writing for EVOL. In March 1986 the band recorded the album at Before Christ with New York recording icon Martin Bisi.EVOL marks the second time in which the band had worked with New York singer and performance artistLydia Lunch. Lunch had shared vocal duties on Bad Moon Rising's "Death Valley '69", and on this record she co-wrote the song "Marilyn Moore".
Mike Watt played bass guitar on the tracks "In the Kingdom #19" and the band's cover of "Bubblegum". The band encouraged him to play it shortly after the fellow band member D. Boon of Minutemen died in a car crash. Coincidentally, the song is also about a car crash. Watt had entered a severe depression following Boon's death and was considering leaving behind his career in music. He credits the time he spent with the members of Sonic Youth during the recording of EVOL as a major factor in his deciding to re-enter the music world. His next band, Firehose, would support Sonic Youth on their Flaming Telepaths tour. During this time the band began the Ciccone Youth project which featured all members of Sonic Youth and Mike Watt. They released a single consisting of three tracks: "Into the Groove(y)" (a cover of Madonna's hit "Into the Groove", incorporating snippets of her recording) and the short "Tuff Titty Rap" on the A side (both performed by the Sonic Youth members), and "Burnin' Up" (performed by Watt with additional guitars by Greg Ginn) on the B side. The project would later result in 1988's The Whitey Album.
On the vinyl format of the album, the time length for "Expressway to Yr. Skull" was indicated by the infinity symbol (∞); the final moment of the song featured a locked groove, making it theoretically endless. The CD format added a bonus track: the band's cover of the Kim Fowley tune "Bubblegum". According to Mike Watt, he and Steve Shelley played the basic rhythm track over the actual Kim Fowley record, which was afterwards removed when the other members added their parts.
The album cover features a picture of model-actress Lung Leg; a still taken from Submit to Me. Leg had previously appeared in the music video for the Bad Moon Rising track "Death Valley '69". On the back cover, there is a black and white picture of the band in a heart-shaped frame. The album's ten songs are listed in a different order than the actual tracklisting. The band members' names are listed on the back cover as well; although no instruments were assigned for them. It reads "guitars, vocals, drums" and "bass" is hidden beneath the photograph of the band. The gatefold features the lyrics to the songs, on the A side it shows a picture of Thurston Moore with eyes drawn on his hands holding them up to his face. This photograph was later used for the cover of the "Starpower" single. On the other side, it shows pictures from horror movies Friday the 13th Part 2 and Children of the Corn. On the upper right corner, it shows a blacked-out image of two ladies.
Sonic Youth debuted the new material for EVOL on April 12, 1986 in Austin, TX - later released through Sonic Death. EVOL was released in May through SST on vinyl and cassette. The band toured Europe in May and June although "In the Kingdom #19" and "Bubblegum" were never played. The band also debuted "White Kross" which was later featured on Sister. Following on from the European tour they toured America in June and July, the same month the band released the only single from EVOL, "Starpower" with "Bubblegum" and an edited version of "Expressway to Yr. Skull" as B-sides. A video was never released for "Starpower". However, a video for "Shadow of a Doubt" was released, directed by Kevin Kerslake and featuring Gordon sitting on a train. After the tour the band recorded the Made in USA soundtrack but it was not released until 1995. The album was released on CD in late 1986.
EVOL has been well received by critics. Robert Christgau, with whom the band had sparred in previous years, gave the album a B+.Slant Magazine, who placed EVOL eighty-second on their Best Albums of the 1980s list, described it as "one of [Sonic Youth's] strangest albums" and "a difficult album that's nonetheless one of the best latter-day invocations of no wave chaos."Pitchfork described the album's style as such: "EVOL would mark the true departure point of Sonic Youth's musical evolution – in measured increments, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo began to bring form to the formless, tune to the tuneless, and with the help of Steve Shelley's drums, they imposed melody and composition on their trademark dissonance," saying that EVOL "[was] where the seeds of greatness were sown", " and placing EVOL thirty-first on their list of the Top 100 Albums of the 1980s.Trouser Press labeled it "a near-masterpiece", and Stephen Thomas Erlewine of Allmusic gave it a four-and-a-half star review, writing that EVOL is "a stunningly fluent mixture of avant-garde instrumentation and subversions of rock & roll."