Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth
Daydream Nation

Starting with the arresting cover art by Gerhard Richter, and continuing with the whopping 71 minutes of music therein, Sonic Youth’s sixth album brazenly attempted to be iconic when it first came out in the fall of 1988, and it succeeded on every level. Similar to what the Velvet Underground did on The Velvet Underground and Nico in 1967, and Television on Marquee Moon in 1977, Daydream Nation achieves the kind of musical trifecta that so perfectly suits a band hailing from New York City, in which the avant-garde, the primal, and the pop-oriented coalesce into one groundbreaking whole.

A bombastic double album featuring “Zoso”-style pictographs and boasting a prog-inspired “trilogy”, it’s a celebration of classic heavy rock at its most garish, but at the same time, it’s a snarky send-up of those very dinosaur rock clichés. The lyrics are either oblique, or poetic, or celebratory, or confrontational. Guitars boogie one minute, elicit discordant screams the next, and chime away quixotically the next. One member sings bleary-eyed melodies, one sings in a sultry, tone-deaf voice, and another can’t sing at all. Yet despite sounding like a complete mess when trying to describe it, the execution on the album is so flawless, it doesn’t seem bloated or unfocused; not a second is wasted. Daydream Nation was greeted with instant, universal praise, from mainstream publications to underground fanzines, canonized seemingly hours after its birth. And contrary to what some revisionist cranks might want to claim, it’s every bit as great as its many admirers say it is.

When 1992’s Dirty became the first Sonic Youth album to receive the Deluxe Edition treatment by Universal four years ago, while it was deserving of such a repackaging, many people, including yours truly, thought, “Thanks, but where’s Daydream Nation?” After 2005’s similarly admirable re-release of 1990’s major label debut Goo, the wait is over for nostalgic Gen X-ers, as the band’s gratest moment on wax comes remastered, repackaged, and overflowing with bonus material. So now the anticipation can cease, and the obsessive debating of whether or not they did a good job on the reissue can begin.

First, and most importantly, is the original album, which has been given a nice spit and polish, the remastering good but nothing overly bold; if anything, continuing with the current trend of making CDs sound louder (besides, the real audiophiles will be clamoring for the upcoming deluxe vinyl edition). Following the lead of two other highly influential double albums of the 1980s, Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, Daydream Nation couldn’t be contained by one individual LP, requiring for sides to convey everything Sonic Youth, who was at the height of its creative powers, had to say. As mentioned earlier, the fusion of high art, brute force, and accessibility was crucial, not to mention prescient; along with Dinosaur Jr.’s Your Living All Over Me and the Pixies’ Doolittle, the latter of which released in 1989, Daydream Nation helped clear the metaphorical table in anticipation of what would be a veritable feast of 1990s music, from grunge, to the mainstream-accepted alternative rock, to America’s exploding indie underground.

The ferocity of the album is still palpable nearly 20 years after the fact: “Silver Rocket” is a balls-out scorcher, “‘Cross the Breeze” teases us with wistful guitars at the beginning only to be usurped by an arrangement that borders on hardcore and metal (interestingly enough, guitarist Thurston Moore mentions the song’s influence on underground black metal band Bone Awl in the liner notes), and “Trilogy” brings the album to a careening, harrowing conclusion, highlighted by the murky “Hyperstation” and the cacophonous “Eliminator Jr.”. Bassist Kim Gordon has never sounded better on record before or since, perfecting her über-cool feminist persona both vocally and lyrically, satirizing American consumer culture on “The Sprawl”, bluntly depicting New York’s infamous 1986 “Preppie Murder” on “Eliminator Jr.”, and targeting the entertainment industry on the acid-tongued “Kissability”. Guitarist Lee Ranaldo’s three tracks prove to be the most lyrically rewarding, his Dylan and Kerouac-inspired spontaneous poetry dominating the Eric Emerson-inspired “Eric’s Trip”, the paranoid “Rain King”, and especially the famous Joni Mitchell paean “Hey Joni”, which features his most inspired wordplay (“She’s a beautiful mental jukebox / A sailboat explosion / A snap of electric whipcrack”).

It’s Moore’s songs, though, that form the core of Daydream Nation, which walk the line between catchy and experimental with astounding deftness. “Total Trash” incorporates a charmingly wonky boogie-woogie riff reminiscent of T. Rex before veering off onto a frenzied noise rock tangent, eventually righting itself at the six minute mark. “Candle” is famous for its wistful, drop-dead gorgeous guitar intro, but the last four minutes of the song feature Sonic Youth at its most optimistic and, dare I say, breezy (“Wind is whipping through my stupid mop”). Nothing, though, compares to the timeless “Teen Age Riot”. One of the great slacker anthems of the late ’80s/early ’90s, it began as a tribute to Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, right down to Moore’s laconic vocal delivery, but as the years have gone on, it’s come to symbolize the collective shrug of a jaded generation stuck having to live with baby boomer nostalgia, Reaganomics, and no cause of its own, and no war to protest against (“Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now”), its only raison d’etre being the glorious release of rock music (“Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’ / And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that’ll do me for now”). With an ebullient band performance that sounds part Lou Reed, part New Order, part Dino Jr., and boasting the most hummable melody in the entire Sonic Youth discography, it is simply perfect, one of the greatest opening tracks in rock ‘n’ roll history.

While the set’s bonus tracks are copious, to the tune of 81 minutes’ worth, there’s nothing especially revealing. Aside from a very beguiling, intimate solo run-through of “Eric’s Trip” by Ranaldo, no demos were recorded for the album, the foursome deciding to hammer out their new songs during a series of club dates in the early summer of 1988. The collection of live recordings, featuring performances of every Daydream Nation song (haphazardly assembled from six separate sets from June 1988 to March 1989), is a mixed bag, albeit a compelling one. “The Sprawl”, “Silver Rocket”, “Hyperstation”, and “Eliminator Jr.” all manage to either match or top the intensity of the album versions, and “Teen Age Riot” and “Candle” are faithfully performed. On the flipside, “Eric’s Trip” suffers from Ranaldo’s weak vocal delivery, while “‘Cross the Breeze” is hindered by a rather weak performance by the rhythm section of Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley. The most interesting live cut is a looser, more free-form version of “Total Trash”, shown in its early stages during one of the band’s famous pre-studio club dates. Four covers are also tossed in, ranging from the somewhat straightforward rendition of the Beatles’ “Within You Without You”, a fun run-through of Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick”, Captain Beefheart’s “Electricity”, and clearly the best of the lot, a raging performance of Neil Young’s “Computer Age”.

Presented in an appealing four-panel digipak, its matte finish suiting the softness of Richter’s front and back cover paintings perfectly, and containing liner notes by band cohort Byron Coley and former Homestead Records A&R man Ray Farrell that, while overtly reverent, stop just short of fawning, the deluxe edition of Daydream Nation presents fans with the usual conundrum: is it worth the exorbitant $30 price tag? While this deluxe edition does not shed any new light on Daydream Nation, the sheer strength of the original album itself more than makes up for any slight shortcomings on the bonus disc. Once in a rare while, an album is special enough to warrant shelling out a little extra for some appealing packaging, liner notes, and decent extras, and this landmark record is one of them.

RATING 10 / 10