The World Looks Red, The World Looks Black: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation 30 Years Later
November 13, 2018 | by Jeffrey Thiessen
To paraphrase a quote from Michael Wincott’s Top Dollar, 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 Nation. The Sonic Youth foundation had already been laid down here, namely their two most enduring cornerstones: guitar tunings emerging from the hosannas of hell’s basement and mystifying time signatures impossible for anyone to pin down. This approach was pushed about as far as the band was willing to take it, but by Sister, Sonic Youth was already on the map as the enfant terrible new kid on the indie scene. Sister 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. To put it simply, Sister 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 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 moments after Sister was released it likely forced Sonic Youth’s hand in regard to awkwardly having the 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 the record 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 Sonic Youth intentionally incinerated it habitually prior to Daydream Nation. 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 still, 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 also not losing the anarchic resentment that made fans so intrigued by them in the first place.
It’s safe to say they were pretty easy targets for non-believers, too. (I’m a massive fan, but I had to take a bit of a hiatus after I saw them reach 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 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. But one thing I recently picked up on with Daydream Nation, is it would appear to be the first album where Sonic Youth hosts no concern over value distinctions in their songs. They seem to be as enamored by Stooges-type power riffing (the driving “Eric’s Trip”) as much as Mark E. Smith noise wars (the trilogy to close off the album), and often these affections are assimilated within the context of a single song, like the dissonant, but kinda pretty “The Sprawl.” “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 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 aren’t (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).
There certainly aren't any sarcastic riffs on Daydream Nation — Sonic Youth were much too serious 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 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, as 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 Nation, 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 closing trilogy. But the real feat of courage here surely was authorizing themselves to embrace a fierce connection to the simple power of a good rock ‘n’ roll song, which gave them the necessary snarl to open 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, but there's also 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 allowing their haunting arpeggios wind around the track’s deceptively straightforward sonic structure, and not the other way around, indicates a band 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 delivery of the lyrics 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 catalog before this invaded our stereos and brains. A calming counterpoint radiates throughout. Daydream Nation 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.
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-80s. 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, 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 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. The last 30 years have made 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.
Listen to Daydream Nation in full.