Counterbalance No. 72: Sonic Youth’s 'Daydream Nation'
The 72nd most critically acclaimed album of all time comes running in on platform shoes with Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue. Counterbalance gives a listen to Sonic Youth's 1988 indie game-changer.
Klinger: Before we get going with what I hope will be a lively thrust-and-parry, I'd like to officially place Daydream Nation's lead-off "Teen Age Riot" on my list of all-time great Side One/Track Ones. After a curious little intro of swirly strumming—and surprisingly seductive non sequiturs from Kim Gordon—we are suddenly kicked into turbo with a classic twin guitar riff from Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. For the next six minutes you're on a wild joy ride, albeit in a rusted out '72 Plymouth Barracuda with wheels that are threatening to fall off at every turn. Seldom is noise this propulsive.
"Teen Age Riot" sets the scene for an album that constantly seems to be veering between chaos and control. But at its core it sounds as if Sonic Youth is in complete command of its faculties, creating soundscapes that are rich with architecture. That's what sets Daydream Nation apart from so many other skronk-merchants. There's always a sense of purposefulness to their songwriting, so the noise never sounds like it's there for its own sake.
Mendelsohn: "Yes" to "Teen Age Riot" being one of the best S1/T1s. "No" to the rest of it. Not a "No, turn that noise off." But more of a "No, thank you, I've had my fill." By the time I stumble blurry-eyed and reeling past "Eric's Trip", I'm wishing for the end. That is until "Total Trash" starts up and I remember why I put this record on in the first place. That feeling never lasts long, however, and soon as I'm past "Providence" and into "Candle", I'm wishing the Youth had put a little more work into commanding their faculties. And it's still another seven minutes until we reach "Trilogy: The Wonder".
I don't begrudge Sonic Youth its place on the Great List. If any band is deserving of being placed higher, its these guys, if for no other reason than the immense amount of influence they would have on the wide realm of indie rock. As a cohesive statement, I never thought Daydream Nation had it all. Maybe it's my slight derision for dissonance. I will agree with you on the propulsive nature of this record. Those 110 minutes can fly by unchecked sometimes.
Klinger: I understand—and almost sympathize with—your difficulties digesting this giant scratchy horse blanket of sound, Mendelsohn, but I think that in order to appreciate why Daydream Nation has the weight of critical consensus behind it you need to look at the album in its context. Throughout the '80s, Sonic Youth had been honing its sound, taking the avant-garde guitar noise of composers like early mentor Glenn Branca and repurposing them within a marginally more pop framework. Daydream Nation saw that sound come into full fruition, and critics were eager to get on board, especially given their general predilection for heaping helpings of double vinyl. I'm not 100% sure what made the difference, but at least part of it can be credited to co-producer Nick Sansano, whose experience engineering hip-hop albums such as Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back enabled the group to lose some of the reedier sound that it turns out was sort of hampering their earlier work. Steve Shelley's drums especially benefit from the massiveness of the Daydream Nation sound—his playing is a big reason why the group is so eminently able to shift moods on a dime.
Plus "Teen Age Riot" is just a butt-kicking way to start up an album. Even a chump critic can see that.
Here's something that might be helpful too, Mendelsohn. Consider that this album was released in 1988—really the tail end of the LP era. Sonic Youth may well have formatted the album to be listened as four discrete sides rather than as a big lump of a CD. Ideally, LPs were arranged to provide kicks at the start and finish of the side, offering enough impetus to drag you up off your bean bag chair and over to the stereo to flip the disc. In fact, "Providence" and "Candle", two songs you cite as draggy, are "buried" in the middle of Side 3. I wouldn't go so far as to call either song filler, but I will concede that there's a reason so few top-tier rock songs consist of noodly piano overlaid with an answering machine message.
Mendelsohn: Context magic never fails to clarify the situation. Being that this is one of those albums that I "own" only in ether of cyberspace (thanks Napster!), incorporating into the listening experience the intricacies of such a mundane task of flipping a record over without actually having a record to flip sort of gets lost in translation. Looking back over the playlist, the side breaks are much easier to see now and the overall construction of the record starts to make sense.
It's not that I'm having any sort of difficulty digesting the material, it's more that I just lose interest. I can't tell you how many times I've caught my mind wandering off as Thurston and Co. stomp through another five-minute blitz of noise draped loosely around pop framework. I'm not going to advocate putting some of these songs on the chopping block as I've been wont to do on previous discussions of the dreaded double album, but do you think Sonic Youth might have created a more durable piece of art if they had adhered closer to the pop framework, blowing out these songs in under three minutes as opposed to seven? Or was Daydream Nation such a step ahead for them that anything more might have been viewed as completely out of character?
Klinger: Well, now, that's an interesting question. Previous Sonic Youth albums kept their extended noise kookiness to one or two songs, whereas Daydream Nation seems to have trouble keeping anything under four minutes. But it's equally telling that I hadn't really thought about it all that much while I was listening to the album. I was aware that the songs were longer than what I'm used to, but because they shift around so much within each track I think my brain is sufficiently amused/confused that I don't spend too much time glancing at the little digital counter on the CD player.
The aptly-named third track "The Sprawl" is a good example. Over the course of seven minutes, we go from a straightforward punkish number, complete with a good hectoring from Kim Gordon, to a minimalist guitar piece, back into some hectoring, and finally a long, slow drift off to what would have been the end of the side. I think the key is to be open to what they’re doing and acknowledging that the journey is as much the point as the destination. I don't have that kind of patience with everything, but on Daydream Nation there's always the sense that the song is headed toward a preordained destination.
Mendelsohn: Some days I get that sense as well but Daydream Nation was never an album that grabbed me by the collar and forced me into enjoying it, despite the scratchy guitar and overt noisiness associated with albums that might be more "in your face" than others. Your point about enjoying the journey rather than the ultimate destination might be what I'm missing on this record. Working my way back through "The Sprawl", "'Cross the Breeze," and "Total Trash", there is a deft display of material at all ranges of the sonic spectrum as the songs transform into mini-suites and this scratchy horse blanket of a record almost starts to turn into a fine tapestry full of color and intricacy. Almost.
Klinger: I'm willing to admit that Daydream Nation is a lot to take in, especially if you're trying to do it all at once. I certainly have my moments where I just tuck into those delicious first few tracks and then move on to something else. But I still find that when I really settle in, Daydream Nation is pretty consistently rewarding. In the past, we've discussed the dichotomy among double albums in which they can be broken down into two categories—the Grand Artistic Statement and the Pile. (Neither one being better than the other, mind you. They're just two different rationales for releasing a massive amount of material all at once.) I'd like to posit that Daydream Nation is in fact a Grand Artistic Statement masquerading as a Pile. For all its slapdash, devil-may-care demeanor, the album turns out to be quite intentional in its dishevelment. And when you look at the construction that's built in here, Daydream Nation hits just right. Does that help, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: I was just thinking about that. Sonic Youth has a definite method to its madness that translates into more of an overarching feel than any true theme. I still don't know what kind of grand statement they are trying to make, it kind gets lost in the dishevelment of the rolling ball of thunder, but at the end of the day, I'm not sure it matters. You can either jump in and enjoy the ride, or try to get out of the way and hope you don't get crushed.