The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black
Daydream Nation Thirty Years Later
by Jeff Thiessen
To steal a quote from Michael Wincott's Top Dollar, the album Daydream Nation represents the moment where an idea becomes the institution, a concept explained half-memorably during his big Devil's Night speech in The Crow's finale. But even pre-Daydream Sonic Youth as an idea was still pretty damn fascinating, brimming with passion and some wildly inventive musical ideas. Take Sister for example, the album that dropped a mere year before Daydream. The Sonic Youth foundation had already been laid down here, namely their two most enduring cornerstones: guitar tunings emerging out of the hosannas from the basement of hell and those mystifying time signatures that were impossible for anybody to pin down. This approach was pushed about as far as the band was willing to take it, but by this point Sonic Youth was already on the map as the enfant terrible new kid on the indie scene. Sister essentially swallowed up every wide-eyed hope or chimerical vision people held out for independent rock, and spit em up through their crashing guitar grinder.
But once you get past the glorious haze of noise on Sister, some inherent problems did begin to creep in, and to put it simply, Sister just didn't rock hard enough. There was an aesthetic scene dogma that did shadow the band wherever they went, but there was a subtle consistency to their work that they or their fans would loathe to admit, even if that consistency was rooted in carnage. Sonic Youth never were as rowdy as they wanted us to think they were. Ultimately Sister's calculated maelstrom seems to exist today as a leap of faith that carved out a perfect landing spot for Daydream Nation, even if some some prefer it as a mutant companion piece. However, the same reason some adherents prefer Sister (it really is a truly uncompromising vision of noise freakouts) is the same reason the walls were closing in around the band. The old as time discussion almost all bands are forced to have at some point, "where do we go from here?" is certainly not a fun one, but the moment after Sister was released, it likely forced Sonic Youth's hand a bit in regard to awkwardly sitting down and having that talk, a talk that would lead to a break from their past in the form of Daydream Nation.
To expand on that a bit, an epic, sleaze-up song like "Catholic Block" was obviously great for creating hype to the punk crowds who were disillusioned by the Replacements writing ballads on a major record label, but how far can an edgy buzz really take a band before it all just fizzles into a great big nothing? Sister's tracks had an endlessly engaging skeletal structure (as did Evol to a lesser extent) but when it was all said and done, there was no real meat on the bones. There was them, there was us, and there was no attempt to bridge the gap, in fact, one could argue that Sonic Youth intentionally incinerated it habitually prior to Daydream. The music was a beautiful mess, the lyrics never threw anybody a bone, so while there was plenty to admire, the band didn't give us much to love. Even then, the hobgoblin of Bohemian minds in the group was achieving pretty significant mainstream success in direct relation to how far they moved away from no-wave, and that certainly didn't go unnoticed by the four members. No longer was this just an art project- a sizable fanbase was emotionally invested in what they did next. They had more factors and people to consider than they did when they wrote end-of-the-world tracks like "Death Valley 69" or "Pacific Coast Highway." But if Sonic Youth were to actually wipe rock's slate clean and allow it to begin again, they would have to allow themselves to be architects of rock n' roll, and not just marauding conquerors. Everything was razed to the ground by now, it was time to start building. Daydream Nation was surely among their most daunting albums to create, as they had to figure out a way to connect to rock music again while not losing the anarchic resentment that made fans so intrigued by them in the first place.
Photo by Michael Lavine
All of this would probably have sounded great on paper, but certainly easier said than done. It's safe to say they were pretty easy targets too for non-believers. (I'm a massive fan, but I had to take a bit of a hiatus from them after I saw them reach almost comical levels of pompousness when Narduwar interviewed the group in 1991, at the height of their fame. In fairness, years later they did apologize. Sort of.
Sonic Youth really did seem to unanimously represent the best, and most difficult, aspects within the pedantic indie framework. So of course they were really the only ones that could release an album like Daydream Nation, a realization of the Lost Indie Dream, and simultaneously putting it to rest for good. They finally figured out how to follow their lysergic squalor out of the noise ether and into the pop netherworld, becoming more slippery and isolate even as song structures got tighter and more focused. This realization carried through through the rest of their raggedly majestic career, especially on the hyper-distilled Rather Ripped (2006) released five years before they called it quits.
Like any seminal release three decades old, it gets pretty difficult to say anything about the record that hasn't been said a hundred times before by smarter people. One thing I recently picked up on with Daydream Nation is that this would appear to be the first album that Sonic Youth hosts no concern over value distinctions in their songs. They seem to be as enamoured by Stooges-type power riffing (the driving "Eric's Trip") as Mark E. Smith noise wars (the trilogy to close off the album), and often times, these affections are assimilated within the context of a single song, like the dissonant, but kinda pretty "The Sprawl" for instance. "Cross the Breeze" is another primo example of their newfound ability to balance harsh static meditation with purposeful guitar trips. It's hard to know if this was a conscious evolution, but it elevates them from noise rock gods to something else entirely, an indescribable presence in music that is reserved for a select few that shift the medium, not the genre. Sonic Youth's tyranny within the context of Daydream Nation essentially comes in the form of an aural ecosystem. It keeps us contained while wandering aimlessly, constantly trying to discern what's real and what's artificial, nourishing us only when absolutely necessary. We can't leave, but we also can't imagine ever wanting to.
As alluded to above, Sonic Youth didn't seem (or certainly don't come off as) very nice. As a result, Daydream Nation isn't particularly good-natured music. First time I wrote about this album, I wrote they "projected their own twisted logic," but thinking back on it, I mostly believe they instead were projecting the Soho-eggheadism their detractors loved to mock (most notably former Chicago Sun Times critic Jim DeRogatis). However, listening to Daydream Nation today in 2018, I believe this plays as a strength, not a weakness. The tone and overall sink-or-swim approach holds up extremely well in today's climate, one that champions sneering irony at unprecedented levels. Sonic Youth may annoy some with their never-ending quest to properly merge art and rock music, but that courageous bravado also gives their strongest work muscle and heart, something their detractors could never really understand (or cared to).
Photo by Michael Lavine
There certainly are not any sarcastic riffs on Daydream Nation- Sonic Youth took themselves much too seriously to poke fun at themselves or the scene they almost single handedly spearheaded (years later, they would deliver deadpan versions of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" and The Carpenters' "Superstar", but even these didn't really land on a cheeky, fun level). This also happens to be the primary reason they ran roughshod over nearly every other band in that decade. At their best, Sonic Youth were never concerned with post-modern wit or hokey scene trends. They just wanted to tear everything down and built it up again as they saw fit. Somehow in the process, they created mindscapes that weirdly managed to merge with the listener's own, and when that didn't work, they imposed one on us so forcefully that the surrender felt like it was our idea in the first place.
A big part of what makes Daydream Nation work so well is the disconnect between how ahead of the curve they actually were, and how far ahead of it they believed they were. This isn't meant as a slight, most great bands have ambition that does outweigh their actual musical talent. Sonic Youth just gave themselves a bigger bullseye in this regard. When it comes to Daydream, the dichotomy allows the album to ground itself when the song calls for it, and lets things get wild when the band is getting a little restless. The indie overlord hype, along with the band's own intense NYC art rock leanings, provided the group with the guts to write a sprawling masterpiece like the album's closing trilogy. But the real feat of courage here surely was authorizing themselves to embrace their fierce connection to the simple power of a good rock n' roll song, which gave them the necessary snarl to open Daydream Nation with the killer, streamlined dual-punch of "Teenage Riot" and "Silver Rocket." This was the first album that saw Sonic Youth accept both sides almost equally when it came time to write the music, and the liberation is felt not only in the heightened brilliance of the songs themselves, but an unbridled energy that finally gave listeners an album to latch onto and hold dear, instead of just prominently displaying it in their record collection.
This also led to a sense of spaciousness that simply wasn't present on any of their previous releases. Daydream Nation actually contain tracks that feel legitimately intimate and warm, "Candle" being the primary example here. Ranaldo and Moore allowed their haunting arpeggios to wind around the track's deceptively straightforward sonic structure and not the other way around, indicating a band that is unified and self-aware enough to create a truly challenging and gorgeous song that never tries to sidestep their limitations as punk's mad professors. The result is one of the most stunning tracks in their catalog. It's still impossible to get past their poker face lyrically and that makes the album impossible to read in any usual sense, but by and large, the auditory trench warfare on past releases is scaled back almost completely, and in its place is a conscious willingness to allow sounds and spaces to breathe and settle in. To me, that's what elevates Daydream Nation above the glorious freakouts that filled their catalogue before this invaded our stereos and brains. A calming counterpoint radiates through the entirety of this record. Daydream never does kick back against their previous work, but there does seem to be an undercurrent of a newfound aggro confidence that does stir up a bit of dust behind them. At times, it does feel an intentional reflection of how far they have come in just one short year. It also must be said these moments never create a divide of their past and present work, only an acceleration of Daydream Nation's inherent power.
Photo by Michael Lavine
At first listen, Daydream Nation can feel like an endurance test to those new to the group. And it kind of is- almost every time I send this to unsuspecting ears, they angrily throw off their headphones by the second track of the trilogy. Sister is even more tough, but given time, that one will likely win over your brain, and given the same amount of time, Daydream Nation will win over your heart and brain. The gradual inflow of found-sound snatches will weave around wildly until it gets in, but make no mistake, it will arrive in the most memorable of entrances if given even the smallest of openings.
Now 30 years old, Daydream Nation has proven to be not only one of the best albums ever made, but perhaps the only true example of what people hoped independent rock music represented in the mid to late ‘80's. Fiercely unique, challenging, uncompromising, and an almost perverse commitment to a fairly outlandish vision that sounded like absolutely nobody else. That stands true to this day.
Today, listening to it, I continue to be struck by its fuzzed-out blueprint, which is as inscrutable as the day it was released in 1988. The absolute disregard for rock verities still seems shocking at times yes, but it's even more stunning how this incredible avant-rock masterpiece values concision so openly and honestly. Daydream Nation is jagged, asymmetrical, and it beats up a lot of things us music lovers hold dear, but the songs boast sincere admiration, and even an open connection to the ruins, which ensures the destruction all has a point and plan for us.
These songs really are warped relatives of Nuggets punk, albeit distant cousins. At some point, after enough listens, it arrives. The squeaks, wails, and tuneless roars reveal step back and finally reveal a sincere, pulsating pop core. The end is the beginning is the end. As startling and confusing as Daydream Nation was in 1988, it's even more so now, which actually allows it to make the most sense it ever has. There is mayhem, there is annihilation, and finally a rock album emerges. If you grow to love this record, you realize the order is of no consequence. Time hasn't simplified these songs or codified its strengths, quite the opposite. The last thirty years has made the Daydream Nation even more difficult to bookend with any sense of closure. Listening to my favorite album now, it still feels like an unfinished journey, one I'll hopefully never complete.
ADDENDA: Daydream alive by Jason Gross
November 19th, 2018- Alamo Drafthouse, Brooklyn
Some 20 years after Daydream Nation came out in 1988, Sonic Youth revisited the album with a series of shows recreating the record from start to finish. One of these concerts (2007 in Glasgow) is featured in a documentary appropriately called Daydream Nation by Lance Bangs, who's done videos for everyone from R.E.M. to Kanye West. Now, over 10 years after that show, Bangs did a nationwide screening tour, with a stop in Brooklyn at the Alamo Drafthouse, which turns out to be an indie theater on the fourth floor of a mall, for a sold-out screening.
For the event, Bangs was there alongside photographer Michael Lavine (who took the Daydream photos as well as the other ones you see on this page) plus SY's Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley who discussed argued about where different events took place, how sessions went and chronology and such. The format was unusual in that the evening started with footage of SY on Dutch TV from the late '80's and then another doc, Charles Atlas' Put Blood In the Music, which features interviews with SY and their peers from the same time period followed by a break where Bangs, Lavine, Ranaldo and Shelley talked about Lavine's photos from that time before Bangs' doc was screened.
Bangs' film is definitely worth seeing as we're witnessing a piece of history being relived by a band still in full capacity of its powers but there was something kind of sad about the proceedings too, knowing that SY was gone.
Along with the film itself, the highlight of the night was seeing Lavine's wonderful band photos on a huge screen accompanied by all manner of memories and comments, which are included below. Ranaldo was the most loquacious by far (and pretty thoughtful and funny too) as you see, but everyone had some interesting comments to share.
Lee and Steve argue about Guns N' Roses
LR: "(Daydream) was the the first record where we worked out songs live beforehand."
LR: "We wanted to rock out like the Seattle bands (for Daydream)."
SS: "We used Edie Brickell and Guns N' Roses as in-between music for our sets- we got their cassettes when we visited the Geffen offices in L.A.."
SS: "We took bands with us to inspire us as openers for our shows. We felt like we played better then."
LR: "What I'm most proud of is that we used whatever attention we got to turn people into other bands, including Dinosaur Jr and Nirvana."
LR: "We considered a bigger label because people couldn't find our records in stores."
LR: "For our cover of (The Beatles') 'White Album,' we worked up a version of "Back in the U.S.S.R." but then we gave up after the second song ("Dear Prudence"). Then, Pussy Galore came along and covered another double album (Exile On Main Str.)."
SS: "We wanted an ensemble sound for our records. We carried around (Television's) Marquee Moon and said (to engineers) 'this is how we want to sound' though he didn't want to just copy that record."
LR on Daydream songs: "we were thinking of them as compositions and only figured out vocals later."
LR: "Our producer (Nick Sansano) hadn't worked with guitars before... he worked with Public Enemy and other rap groups.... We were closer with the Bomb Squad and (producer) Hank Shocklee than Public Enemy itself- they were interested in our sound."
LR: "We had too much for a single album and Husker Du and Minutemen had already done double albums so we thought 'why not?'"
ML on Brooklyn Bridge photos of SY (as seen in the poster above): "Out there, it was dirty, smelly, steamy and gross and full of rats."
LR on the shaky image for the poster insert for Daydream, from a photo that Lavine took (see below) and how it meshed with SY's sound: "We liked the movement over the clarity."
LR: "We (SY) wanted decent home lives and to make the music radical- because of the music, people thought we were dark and super cool but we weren't!"
Daydream Nation poster insert
photo by Michael Lavine
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