Sonic Youth, Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth Daydream Nationdaydream-nation

 

“Everybody’s talkin’ bout the stormy weather/ what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?” Thurston Moore asks in the opening track, “Teen Age Riot,” setting off an album that sounds both like stormy weather and “working out whether it’s true.”  That is, seeking the truth past the way we describe it.  Would you describe it as melodious listening to that clanging, off-tune guitar in “Riot”?  It repeats like a melody certainly, but it is dirtier, much noisier, full of static and feedback.  “It’s getting so stormy in my city’s head/ it takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed,” Moore muses, and what the band spews forth over 74 minutes and 14 sprawling songs is not just that riot, it helps start what will become grunge and the rock mainstream in just another few years.

 

Is that an overstatement?  The album, centered with gorgeous cover art featuring Gerhard Richter’s painting Kenze (Candle), is full of bombastic tendencies – symbols for each of the band members to echo Led Zeppelin’s IV, songs that allegedly reference Saul Bellow, Joni Mitchell, ZZ Top, and that featured an art film music video for the song “Providence,” a song of an off-key piano recorded on a walkman, played over an answering machine message left from Providence, RI.  Everything about the album declares its position in the rock pantheon, but amazingly, as the years have gone by, it’s not only evidently influential in the rock records that came in its wake, it still declares and blasts its conceptual daring, its rock virtuosity, and its astonishing beauty and wisdom on succeeding listens. 

 

This is easy for me to say – Sonic Youth has, since I first heard the record ten years ago, consistently been the band I refer to as “my favorite band.”  Is it that I love them that much more than, say, the Velvet Underground, or Sleater-Kinney, or the Rolling Stones?  Maybe, maybe not, but Sonic Youth continue to have a quality that has never been matched in any other artist – perhaps because they’ve stayed together under the same iteration for so long, perhaps because they’re schooled in the background of New York’s art-rock scene and is often more art than rock.  Daydream Nation is so singular a triumph even in their excellent catalogue, though – the collision of their noise with their melodiousness.  Art that never overshadowed the drive of the music.  Feedback that underscored emotion.  “Teenage Riot” goes into the furious “Silver Rocket,” and then into Kim Gordon’s song “The Sprawl,” a song that is pissy (“I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell/ does this sound simple?/ Fuck you/ Are you for sale?”) as it was rather sweet and wondrous, blanketed by a wall of noise that was propulsive, lovely, and gave way to a meadow of noise on song’s conclusion.

 

For a record often described as “conceptual,” “sprawling,” and “ambitious,” what exactly was its sprawling, conceptual ambition?  I have theories – I hear in songs like “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni” a desire to break free from the common understanding of the things we say in society and find some “truth.”  But that’s far too cerebral.  In 1994, the band would leave as an epigram on the back cover of their (great) Experimental Jet Set, Trash, and No Star record, “Once it leaves your head, it’s already compromised,” a quote from No Wave creator Glenn Branca.  That’s a quote that defined what worked about their music – of getting infinitesimally closer to the confusion, the riot in our heads simply by making the guitars cacophonous instead of melodious.  Over time, the noise turned into melody anyway.  Another quote would be from “Confusion Is Next,” a rather middling song on their first full length record Confusion is Sex: “I maintain that chaos is the future/ Confusion is next/ and next after that is freedom.”  Consider this a little more of columns B and C than column A.

 

This would always be the MO for the band, and, particularly in the records released between 1985 and 1995, I don’t think it’s ever not worked.  The truth is, even on records (like 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, or 2004’s Sonic Nurse) that don’t feel as conceptually full as their best work (Daydream, Dirty, Jet Set, EVOL, Bad Moon Rising), there are still qualities on the record no one else in music can approximate.  Because Sonic Youth was always a band most beloved by music critics, there tends to be a lot of snobbishness and revisionism in describing their music also.  But Daydream Nation is the record that justifies all of that – an album that feels as revolutionary as it sounds, that explodes in your heart as much as your head.  By the time the band reaches its 14-minute, sorta-conclusive “trilogy” that closes the record, blazing “It’s an anthem in a vacuum in a hyperstation/ daydreaming days in a daydream nation,” you’re aware of hearing the sound and the feeling of a generation represented with as much beauty as volume. 

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