A confession: While a pimply adolescent of negligible skills (social or any other), this author used to write poetry. A lot of it. While listening to music on headphones in the (mostly) dark. The music coming through those headphones which delivered such visionary auditory inspiration tended to be one album in particular: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation. Released in 1988, it was an anomaly in the post-punk music underground by being a sprawling double LP whose semi-mystical and arcane songs gave off a strong whiff of the dreaded concept album, so beloved of pretentious arena rock bands which punk, post-punk, New Wave, and No Wave had done their best to maul and leave for dead. So, it was different. And beautiful. Quietly roaring. Vicious. Rebellious. Transcendent and transformative. It awakened the heavenly choirs of one’s mind and let you know what music was about. The kind of album that you played for anybody you could whenever you could, because if it had changed your life why not theirs?—who cares that it was a party and people wanted to hear the Violent Femmes again? This was music that spoke multitudes.
But the poetry was terrible. Truly.
In other words, the pre-grunge, slashing cyberpunk poetry of Daydream Nation makes for an album that inspires ridiculously devoted fans. Truly ridiculous. Which makes it a perfect candidate for Continuum’s excellent 331/3 series, in this case authored by a fan possessed of such serious devotion to this band and this collection of songs that it makes this author look like a mere piker in comparison. Matthew Stearns is a writer of considerable moxie, possessed of a thoroughly unhinged and seemingly endless thesaurus, and supremely convinced of this album’s majesty. What this all means is that Mr. Stearns is quite well suited to do justice in this close listening guide to what he refers to as “some of the most gripping, adventurous 70 minutes 51 seconds in contemporary rock.” And that’s a mild compliment considering the volcanic eruptions of praise that cascade throughout this slim little volume.
After painting the scene for us wherein the band recorded the album (hot New York summer, cramped recording space, a legendarily experimental band at a crux in their career and looking to expand, explosively if necessary) Stearns methodically walks readers through the album itself. Song by song. Line by line. Moment by moment. It’s a revelatory construct, particularly for a record as deeply layered in influences and abstractions as Daydream Nation is. Along the way, Stearns gives a helpful overview of the band members themselves (most of whom he appears to have interviewed), annotating how their omnivorous cultural feedings and art-school backgrounds created such an ambitious and uncategorizeable piece of work. Even when put up against its closest neighbors—those two other great, decade-defining indie-rock double albums, Husker Du’s Zen Arcade and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, both released in 1984 on Sonic Youth’s old label, SST—Daydream Nation, with its clean but chaotic sound and apocalyptic trash lyrics is hard to slot and well-nigh impossible to define. That doesn’t keep Stearns from trying, though.
Although many readers, even some Sonic Youth fans, may find Stearns’ nonstop effusions to be nothing more than rock critic overkill—for instance, calling “Teenage Riot,” the first song, “a jet-powered, revved-up screaming missile of pure rock ecstasy” (which, by the way, it is—there’s no denying that this manner of freakout praise is, in some sense, correct. After all, when a record strikes you with such power and force (Stearns asks, “Why do we want to inhabit certain records?”), it can’t be described in smartly genteel terms. Maybe some writers can do so—Jonathan Lethem, Nick Hornby, for instance—but the rest of us just have to make do with hurling words. Lots of them. Really LOUD ones. And hoping they stick. Although he uses more than he really should, Stearns’ words stick. Few writers could get away with lines like “We’re all teenagers at the mercy of rock’s beauty and elan.” Amen, brother.