Daydream Nation is timeless from the first note.
Leave it to Sonic Youth to make a double album that is somehow less abrasive and challenging than the single albums that they released before and after it. Daydream Nation is not the most obtuse that the New York quartet ever got, nor did it feature the band at their most accessible. Yet the album is held up by so many fans as their crowning achievement and one of the best albums of its era. There’s some strange chemistry of sound going on with this album in how it mixed so many of the band’s disparate influences–classic rock, punk, noise–into something balanced and distinct.
That balance flows throughout Daydream Nation, giving it a grandiose scale that is nonetheless welcoming and timeless. I would argue that this is the only time the band achieved this mix; their other albums, great though many of them are, find the band playing in one of their many modes or interfacing directly with musical trends of the time. Furthermore, their lyrical fascinations with high art, pop history, celebrity culture and their ever-changing environment could come across as half-baked or overdone, depending on their particular fascinations on each project. Daydream Nation, on the other hand, is timeless from the first note.
“Teen Age Riot”
No one would ever call Sonic Youth an “anthemic” band, but “Teen Age Riot” is the kind of song that makes one’s heart fill up with some indescribable feeling. It works simultaneously as an introduction for newer fans who may not know the plethora of influences that the band drew from while showing longtime fans how those experimental ideas could mesh harmoniously with more conventional rock ideas. While its length and structure may be strange, the eternal nature of its main riff owes as much to Neil Young as it does to Glenn Branca. This is perhaps the first song where one could imagine hearing Sonic Youth on the radio.
After opening the album with an overt nod to classic rock and how it was merging with the nascent alternative scene of the late ‘80s, Sonic Youth dive head-first into punk with Daydream Nation’s second track. Granted, this was Sonic Youth, so the song is “punk” filtered through their unique lens. Ergo, it’s a punk song that devolves into a squall of guitar feedback and noise…only to form back into punk again. It’s a tight package of perfectly controlled chaos…
…which is the perfect palate cleanser for a long, expansive guitar freak-out. The first of two back-to-back seven-minute jams, this is one of the moments where the band deliberately contrast their high art tendencies with their rock aspirations: so much of “The Sprawl” could be a Crazy Horse-style workout, but Kim Gordon’s vocals–which veer towards spoken-word recitation–elevate it beyond something that a million proto-grunge bands could’ve put together.
“Cross the Breeze”
Where the preceding track was languid and featured a degree of contrast between its vocals and construction, “Breeze” keeps up a frenetic pace for most of its runtime. Gordon hits her upper register here, screaming pronunciations of words in a way that only she has ever been able to do. The defiant cool of the previous songs fades away here, and in its place is a growing unease.
That unease is the crux of Lee Ranaldo’s first song on the album, which follows what is now a typical Lee Ranaldo pattern of turning psychedelia into something twisted and sinister. Lee plays the role of a wild prophet here, but he seems relatively tame compared to the mind-bending sounds the band are able to squeeze out of their guitars. Each successive song seems to indicate a slow descent into chaos, and “Eric’s Trip” feels like the culmination of that journey.
This is Sonic Youth at their most conventional. There’s not a lot about “Total Trash” that is experimental or freeing on the surface. Moore sings a fairly straightforward melody, and the band aren’t bending sound in the way they typically do. “Total Trash” is, in essence, a rock song. However, the band don’t just leave it at that; they drag the song out further, letting run like an engine until it slows to a crawl. Even at their most conventional, Sonic Youth refuse to actually be conventional.
It could be interpreted that Daydream Nation, alongside the rest of Sonic Youth’s early work, is about twisting the iconography of the Sixties into something unrecognizable. “Hey Joni” takes that subtext and makes it text, with Ranaldo addressing someone who may or may not be folk icon Joni Mitchell. This is Ranaldo at his most post-modern, yet there’s a sincere ache for his call to “forget the past/ and just say yes.” For several songs, Sonic Youth have been measuring themselves against the spectres of music’s past and twisting that language as a form of rebellion, and now they get to the point of doing so.
Sonic Youth could use feedback and distortion to create some harsh, dissonant music, but “Providence” is an example of how beauty can come out of their methods, as well. When listening closely to the swirling mix of feedback and piano, one becomes entranced; it’s a thing of true beauty. Naturally, in true Sonic Youth fashion, they disrupt that beauty with a recording of Mike Watt telling Thurston Moore not to smoke so much weed. Is it some sort of art piece? Is it a deliberate moment of levity? It’s ultimately a mystery, but it adds to the album’s allure in a way that elevates it above the level of a throwaway track.
We come out of the other side of the feedback with a pure rocker, one that by now lures us back into a sense of security. At his peak (and he was certainly at his peak here), Thurston Moore could write this kind of rocker better than anyone, but “Candle” has a specific venom to it that doesn’t pop up on the rest of the album. Here, he casts himself (or someone like him) as the rock burnout, someone who doesn’t have much to offer the world and very little time in which to offer it. After wading through a history that maybe wasn’t worth glorifying to the extent that it was, the band start looking forward on the second half of Daydream Nation, and the future looks pretty bleak.
It only gets bleaker with this, Ranaldo’s third and most dissonant contribution. Of all the songs here, this is the most indebted to the avant-garde, as Ranaldo’s ranting barely forms into a vocal melody while Steve Shelley goes absolutely berserk on the rack toms. With lyrics decrying materialism and seeming to wish for the end of existence, “Rain King” presents the band at its most nihilistic.
That nihilism follows through into this, one of the band’s songs that plays off their fascination with American celebrity culture. Here, Gordon does something truly magnificent in taking the dream of becoming famous and turning it into something utterly creepy and terrifying. Taking the part of one of the many people who make their livelihoods selling the dream of celebrity to hapless rubes, Gordon fanatically peppers you with praise in a way designed to make your skin crawl; even the title of the song is a form of objectification. It’s eerily prophetic how they saw this descent into leering, plasticine culture coming in 1988.
“Trilogy A: The Wonder”
The trilogy that concludes Daydream Nation takes us to exactly where the band’s increasingly dour view of the world comes from. After travelling through decades of American culture, all of which is increasingly viewed as useless and ultimately destructive, we’re plopped into the band’s world. It’s the grim, gritty New York the band all moved to, the city that fueled their creative drive as it was falling apart. “The Wonder” has that excitement that one sees in someone moving to New York for the first time, but there’s also a sense of tangible fear and paranoia. Yet, even as Moore sings of flashing lights and murder, he can’t help but find himself captivated: “I’m just walking around/ Your city is a wonder town.”
“Trilogy B: Hyperstation”
If “The Wonder” has the edgy spark of someone leaving their small town for the big city, “Hyperstation” has the weariness of someone who’s lived in that city for years and has seen some shit, man. Thurston’s probably just describing a normal day, to a certain extent: he puts on his t-shirt, walks around the Lower East Side of Manhattan and says what he sees. It’s hard to gauge what he feels, and the languid music backing him doesn’t give hints, but he seems to be completely in his own head, a daydreaming kid in a daydream nation.
“Trilogy Z: Eliminator Jr.”
Yet that fear is still present amongst the malaise, especially for someone like Kim Gordon who understands a certain fear of existence that her male counterparts don’t really get. She gets the last word on Daydream Nation, and she uses it to rage at the culmination of the de-evolution of culture in her time. Her subject is Robert Chambers, a man who graced magazine covers because he was rich, handsome…and because he assaulted and killed a woman in Central Park. This is where pop culture has gotten us, Gordon says. We now profile killers as a form of entertainment to consume. The rage in her voice and from her bandmates guitars is palpable, and the message is clear: if this is where our culture is going, we are well and truly fucked.