Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1988-10-18
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation

I graduated college in the Spring of 1988 and had my first full time job lined up in the midst of a horrible recession in my home state of Texas.  Little did I know that the company I had agreed to work for would fail just before I joined, but fortuitously their successor picked me up and I started drawing a paycheck.  With one of the first of those in hand, I purchased a vinyl copy of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation.  My best friend had copies of Bad Moon Rising, Evol, and Sister, that we listened to many times, but this was my first (and only surviving) Sonic Youth vinyl purchase.  I was a dedicated SST fanboy - particularly the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, and the Meat Puppets, but Sonic Youth had a different level of inscrutable intensity and were taking things a different direction in the late 80’s.  This album marked their departure from SST to Blast First with supposedly major label distribution through Capitol that didn’t ultimately go so well.  This would lead them to their true major label debut with Geffen (ironically Sonic Youth lured Nirvana and Nevermind over to this label as well) and their next album Goo at the dawn of the following decade.  

Some thirty years on, and after my eldest child has now graduated college, I still have the album.  Tucked in amongst two shelves of vinyl records (just unboxed this year after a few decades), my copy of Daydream Nation sits rather unassumingly like some passed over Ark of the Covenant.  Its gatefold sleeve makes the spine obvious amongst the others, but it’s a rather cheaply assembled affair.  Setting aside the minimalist and photorealistic candle painting by Gerhard Richter, the cardboard is flimsy and not well coated.  The two album sleeves are plain white paper with label cut-outs and the inner gatefold photo is a blurred out and grungy looking back alley photo of the band.  The lure of a folded lyric sheet turns out to be just another band photo which is too small to pass for a poster.  If this was supposed to be a step towards a major label, it definitely has a DIY feel.  But when the needle drops…

The opening of their biggest track from this album ‘Teen Age Riot’, while a vehicle for guitarist/singer Thurston Moore, starts as a meandering minute and a half of droning guitars and minimalist drumming with bassist Kim Gordon muttering something about “spirit desire”.  But after that false front the song bursts forth with Moore on lead vocals and his and Lee Ranaldo’s guitars battling it out for a five-minute sprint.  As a hallmark of their sound the guitars are alternately tuned, by default creating a new sound, and when you know their next step is a zig they give you a zag creating the most glorious reverse hook in rock’s history book.  The hook is two steps forward and six jagged steps back, but still lurches forward somehow with Steve Shelley’s drums pounding it out.  With Moore’s references to not needing more than a “foghorn, drum, hammer, cord, pedal and a lock”, its no wonder a million “alternative” bands were born in the wake of this song.  Not giving you a moment’s respite ‘Silver Rocket’ has a more straightforward sound but rocks pretty damn hard.  As dynamic as its title, the song flares hard and as it starts to fizzle mid-song Shelley and Gordon stair step it back up to a final minute’s upwards thrust.  The side closes with Gordon’s ‘The Sprawl’ which is appropriately titled and stretches out over seven minutes.  If ‘Teen Age Riot’ and ‘Silver Rocket’ show what the band can do within a pop construct, ‘The Sprawl’ showcases the bands drone elements leaving Gordon’s deadpan declaration of “he was candy all over” behind as the last three minutes are a wind down of pounded guitar strings, broken riffs, and noisy (but not loud) feedback.  As strong a side of late 80s post punk as you will find.

Side two is certainly not as approachable as the opening side.  Here the band bends more towards the atonal after another head fake of a lead in on ‘’Cross the Breeze’.  The song keeps up a brisk pace with Gordon’s vocals at their most strained pleading “I wanna know” while Moore’s and Ranaldo’s guitars are at their most tortured, pushed, and tangled.  Ranaldo’s first vocal lead comes on this side as well and he establishes himself as a serious minded dude on ‘Eric’s Trip’.  Ranaldo’s tracks are the shortest on the album, but arguably the most aggressive and abrasive.  His sincere declaration that “this is Eric’s trip” and warning that “there is something moving over there to the right” leave no room for questioning and evoke a sense of dread befitting the tone.  Closing out this side is Moore’s “could have been a single” of ‘Total Trash’.  Well at least three minutes of it could have been with the biggest hook on the album coming in the wah-wah recoil that recurs in several spots.  The song devolves into pounded and scraped guitars with even Shelley’s ordinarily rhythmic drumming coming undone.  The melody does pick up again but is barely breathing by the time it gets to the hook which is cruelly squashed out at the end.  

Ranaldo’s bookended tributes to Joni Mitchell and Pere Ubu sandwich some of Moore’s more dewey-eyed compositions on side three.  Making this side the most incongruous pairing of songs but they ultimately balance each other out and all are compelling.  Here appears the quietest of Moore’s constructions in the form of ‘Providence’.  Over delicate piano playing and the “found sound” clip of a fried amp buzzing, Moore replays some snippets of phone messages left by former Minutemen member Mike Watt.  As if Moore needed a spot to always come back to in order to provide ballast, Watt chastises Moore bluntly to get his shit together.  Watt sounds like a latter day Ralph Kramden, but the tone also reminds me of the movie Night Shift where Henry Winkler’s Chuck records a message on Michael Keaton’s Bill’s Walkman telling him “this is Chuck to remind Bill to shut up!”  Keaton rewinds and replays over and over again incredulous that anyone would call him out.  Whatever Moore’s inspiration to record this, it stands out starkly and memorably from the fray.  Somehow ‘Providence’ fits and many single this out as a highlight of the album, maybe due to its directness.  Again Ranaldo’s über serious tone on ‘Rain King’ and lyric of “he’s a shotgun, schoolyard, streetwise, white-hot kid” leaves no sense of irony as the closer of the side.

Gordon’s ‘Kissability’ opens side four being thirty years ahead of its time in outing Hollywood sleaze balls.  One of the more thematically direct songs, Gordon’s lines of “you’re so soft, you make me hard, I’ll put you in a movie” serve the adage well that life imitates art.  I’m sure Gordon has had some smug satisfaction in seeing icons fall at the hands of their victims during the latter half of 2017.  The song would make for a great montage soundtrack of clips of these predators.  The album closes out with the multi-part ‘Trilogy’ giving the band room to stretch out and ultimately ending the album at their crunchiest with the final section of ‘Eliminator Jr.’ aping ZZ Top and Dinosaur Jr. by meshing the old with the new.  All in all the extended guitar workout of ‘Trilogy’ concludes a bracingly abrasive 70 minutes of music and the apex of the band’s powers are on full display throughout.  

At the time of its release, the album did not chart in the U.S. (though at least ‘Teen Age Riot’ did as a single) and Rolling Stone gave it a positive but not overly enthusiastic 3 1/2 stars.  Sometimes beauty takes a bit to unfold and if not beautiful in the classic sense, like Goya’s black paintings which are segregated to protect the sensitive, some will not take up the gauntlet that the band has thrown down.  Whereas followers, such as Nirvana’s Nevermind, do slowly seep into widespread acceptance where they don’t feel so scary as they first seemed, given Daydream Nation’s alternate tunings and subversive song structures it will thankfully always maintain its edge.  The album is now widely recognized as a masterpiece and appears on all sorts of all-time best lists of albums, songs, guitar work and the like.  From its humbly recorded Greene Street beginnings in SoHo New York to being eternally ensconced in The Library of Congress, the band could never have envisioned their impact while generations ahead can continue to be awed.

Note:  There are both remastered and deluxe versions of the original album out there in the world.  The deluxe edition adds live versions of every track and four cover songs ranging from Neil Young to Mudhoney (the latter being Sonic Youth’s half of a single split with Mudhoney where they cover each other’s song).

           

 

       

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars
  • Rated 5 out of 5 stars

    Great review, Mark! I think the 3.5 from Rolling Stone says a lot more about the decline of rock journalism from that publication than the brilliance of Daydream Nation. I'm a little younger than you and my first exposure to Sonic Youth was on the Pump Up The Volume sndtk. Soundgarden & Pixies too.

  • Don't even get me started on Rolling Stone. I got into SY around Goo and then worked backwards. This was my least favourite of their albums for a while and then it just clicked. I saw them live on the Goo tour and they were just ferocious.

  • Thanks for reading. Forgot to mention I was 10 when I graduated college! I wasn't trying to bash Rolling Stone per se (though their current best of 2017 list is a bit suspect), but more that I'm not sure any of us realized what had been dropped on us when Daydream Nation came out. Thanks!