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 31st on their Top 100 Albums of the 1980s list, alongside Sonic Youth's next two albums, Sister and Daydream Nation, which ranked 14th and first, respectively.
In June 1985, during the Bad Moon Rising tour, previous drummer Bert left the band and was replaced by Shelley. The new lineup 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 BC Studio with New York recording icon Martin Bisi.EVOL marked the second time that 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 on the former track shortly after Watt's fellow Minutemen band member D. Boon 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 his career in music behind. He credited the time he spent with the members of Sonic Youth during the recording of EVOL as a major factor in his decision to re-enter the music world. Watt's 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 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 Ginn) on the B-side. The project would later result in 1988's The Whitey Album.
On the vinyl-format version 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 version added a bonus track: the band's cover of the Kim Fowley tune "Bubblegum". According to Watt, he and Shelley played the basic rhythm track over the actual Fowley record, which was afterwards removed when the other members added their parts.
The album cover featured a picture of model/actress Lung Leg, a still taken from Submit to Me. Leg had previously appeared in the "Death Valley '69" music video. The back cover featured a black-and-white picture of the band in a heart-shaped frame. The album's 10 songs were listed in a different order than the actual track listing. The members' names were listed on the back cover as well, although no instruments were assigned for them. It read "guitars, vocals, drums", with "bass" hidden beneath the photograph of the band. The gatefold featured the lyrics to the songs, and the A-side depicted 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. The other side contained pictures from horror movies Friday the 13th Part 2 and Children of the Corn, with a blacked-out image of two ladies in the upper right corner.
Sonic Youth debuted the new material for EVOL on April 12, 1986 in Austin, Texas; a recording of that show was later released in 1992 as Live at the Continental Club. EVOL was released in May 1986 by SST on vinyl and cassette. The band toured Europe in May and June, performing tracks from the album (although "In the Kingdom #19" and "Bubblegum" were never played live). The band also debuted "White Kross", which was later featured on Sister. Following the European tour, they toured America in June and July. In July, the band released the only single from EVOL, "Starpower". It was backed by "Bubblegum" and an edited version of "Expressway to Yr. Skull". 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.EVOL 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 at No. 82 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: "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." Pitchfork went on to say that EVOL "[was] where the seeds of greatness were sown", ", and placed it 31st 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 4.5-star review, writing that EVOL is "a stunningly fluent mixture of avant-garde instrumentation and subversions of rock & roll."