Records I Return To: Daydream Nation
I keep coming back to Daydream Nation because it’s the best Sonic Youth album. It’s also the most “Sonic Youth” album they ever recorded. Sure there were darker, noisier, more aggressive ones, and sure there were poppier, more melodious, more upbeat ones, but Daydream Nation is the one that has just about all of their facets in just about equal (and equally strong in terms of writing and performance, even the weird Musique Concrete shit) measure. I like Confusion Is Sex, I like Sister, I even like Bad Moon Rising even though it features one of the worst performances by Lydia Lunch ever put on record, but Daydream Nation is the one I keep returning to, having been familiar with most of their body of work for the last decade.
As those weird Barclays adverts keep reminding me, first impressions matter. How strange, then, that this album should come on, as it does, like that guy you know who shows up to parties, stoned already, with a pair of bongos and very much ready to start spreading the very, very “relaxed” vibes, and still be one of the strongest openings to an album you’ll find in the ‘80s, and maybe ever? It kicks in like drugs kick in, faint whisperings, and then there is no denying what is happening. It stands perfectly in the middle of driven riff rock, the more melody driven side of Television and chords you won’t have heard before this side of a Swans record to pretty much perfectly encapsulate the album as a whole, as well as what would be their aesthetic for some time, though they would never do it better than this.
And then there’s the video, sadly missing the ethereal opening, which functions almost as a how to list to what was the (largely white) punk inspired DIY counterculture that developed in the USA during the ‘80s and saw its apotheosis in the release of Nevermind. Functionally it’s similar to the front cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; a collage of faces that the band either wanted to namecheck or acknowledge. For a boy of 14 who didn’t know a thing about music, these faces, cut together without much insistence on structure, in much the same way that one of the faces featured in the video, William S. Burroughs, would recommend, functioned as an excellent shopping list, and together with Kurt Cobain’s Journals began to greatly shape my taste. Not mention the allure of watching a strange video set to exciting new music, while I was up far past my bedtime watching MTV2, back when it played things that weren’t Razorlight. Back before I had a permanent internet connection, and shortly after I did and was hovering up all the information I could, it was loci of culture like this video, or the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s, or Cobain’s Journals that were guiding me. And permanently alienating me from my peers, but that’s another story.
Daydream Nation is by far the most varied Sonic Youth album, thematically and sonically, and yet it doesn’t feel unfocused, probably because the central core of most of Sonic Youth’s output, that half playful (come on, last night’s dream was a talking baby lizard?), half aggressive (kids dressed up for basketball beat me in my head) kind of joy is so solidly present throughout. There isn’t any filler, not even the aforementioned weirdo Musique Concrete shit, which is perfectly in tune with the Gerhard Richter painting on the cover, evoking as it does loss, distance, having mistakenly thrown away something valuable. This is how you do a double album, something that Sonic Youth managed to far better effect than another double album that Sonic Youth were at one point planning on covering in its entirety.
The variety demands your attention, always giving you something else to chew on before you’re barely finished digesting the last noise freakout. There are songs about William Gibson novels, about acid trips, about candles, rain, love, teenage kicks (Teenage Riot is way better than Teenage Kicks, I said it, shoot me), a combo Dinosaur Jr./ZZ Top send up that perfectly closes both the album and the gorgeous, Queenesque suite that makes up the last track. And that’s not even to talk about how it all works sonically.
Lee, Kim and Thurston are all well represented and present themselves well. Lee gets a story song that is perfectly suited for his voice and for the wild, yet introspective, attitude he’s always represented. Kim gets the harder, rockier stuff that she is [so fucking good] at. Thurston gets the weird, impressionistic shit because I can only assume he’s fucking weird. They all handle themselves so well that no themes or ideas feel wasted or underdeveloped. This is the kind of album a band makes when the stars align and they perfectly present themselves on record.
N.B. I wasn’t going to mention Steve Shelley’s great drumming, but a friend who read this through for me mentioned the extended drumroll in the noise section of Silver Rocket. Pay attention to the drumming, too, damn it. It’s an excellent part of an excellent whole.
To talk of variation and not mention the gorgeous guitar interplay and exploration, though, would be criminal. There are clean, gorgeous arpeggios, nasty atonalities, ring modulated fuzz tones, never gratuitous wah wah, tough riff rock, fast Ramones style chords, drones, drones, drones, and plenty of noise breakdowns and bridges. There’s a song that needs to be played with a prepared guitar, even. Everything that had been present in their toolkit up to this point is seen here perfected, melded perfectly with the interlocking arpeggiated guitar loveliness that would become their trademark in their later career. It’s a masterclass on what you can do with a couple of guitars in a rock setting and it’s just, frankly, bloody lovely to listen to. I admit I am a sucker when it comes to guitar based music. I’ve loved albums/bands/songs that were otherwise very weak, but had a guitar tone or style that I found novel or pleasing. It’s the same feeling that makes me like Led Zeppelin even though, let’s be honest, they really didn’t write all that many great songs. Up to the point where I heard Daydream Nation for the first time I’d mostly consisted on a diet of Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath and so on, your standard heteronormative 14 year old boy’s record collection. Daydream Nation affected me the same way Naked Lunch affected me when I first read it. I just didn’t know that you could do that, or that you were even allowed to do it. I come back to it to hear what still sound like fresh ideas, both raw and already perfect, to hear something that was released two years before I was born, and that I first heard a decade ago, and still sounds new. It was one of the records that made me want to pick up a guitar and deliberately not play it properly, just to see what I could come up with on my own, and to see what sounded cool to me. I still don’t know my way around the circle of fifths.
There’s a case to be made against Sonic Youth for engendering the horror of Alternative Rock and all that entailed, the spectre of which we still live with, though it presently lays dying, awaiting the second (third, fourth) coming in the cycle of, well, I heard that your band sold their guitars and bought turntables. Yeah, well I heard that your band, sold their turntables, and bought guitars. Though the corpses of Silverchair and Stone Temple Pilots may make the water from the river undrinkable, the source is still very much fresh, and you wonder if everyone just missed the point. Or realised they could slightly tweak it and make a lot of money, I guess.
Sonic Youth never would (hopefully never will, in a sense, could they please get back together and keep making albums that are good but not as good as this one please?) never make an album as good as this again, but that doesn’t matter. They mastered their craft here and it stands as a perfect testament to a combination of experimental conservatory tendencies and straight up fun rock and roll. Sure their other albums are good, and I still listen to them, but they tend to be one or the other, experimental and noisy in a satisfying way, but standoffish, or fun and very likeable but not quite sticking, not quite making a point, quite like Daydream Nation does.