Sonic Youth - Daydream Nation
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I’ve been going through a resurgence of my love for music lately. After a time when I was basically just going through the motions, listening and shrugging and going on with my life, I’m starting to get bowled over by music again. There’s so much I’m hearing now, whether new or old, that just makes me feel all happy and tingly when I listen to it. Listening to Destroyer’s newest album, getting into Boredoms, rediscovering Neutral Milk Hotel—hell, even Merzbow has been making me feel good. But there’s nothing that makes me smile quite like “Teen Age Riot,” the first song on Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation.
If you read the rock press, they’ll use words like “masterpiece” to describe this record—also “classic,” “seminal,” and “milestone”—and sure, it’s all of those things, and that’s great, but that’s not why I love it. There are plenty of “classic” records that I wouldn’t ever want to actually listen to. This disc is something different, and you can tell from the very beginning, from the first few guitar licks. Instantly, you realize that you won’t need history to appreciate this album; you don’t need to hear it in context, you don’t need to have “been there,” you don’t even need to know anything about Sonic Youth as a band. It’s just the kind of record that is great, and that greatness is totally distinct from whatever importance or influence it’s accumulated in the time since its initial release.
Maybe I’m approaching Daydream Nation this way because I was never a big Sonic Youth fan until not too long ago. I didn’t listen to them while growing up—I never had MTV, and was so un-hip I probably wouldn’t’ve liked this stuff if it came on the radio anyway. Over the years since then, I’ve heard scattered songs and liked most of them, but never made much of an effort to seek out more until a few months ago.
But despite the fact that I’d never heard it before, my first listen to this album instantly transported me back seven or eight years to my junior high days. It’s just that kind of record, dripping with youthful energy and intensity. The way it starts: those shimmering guitars, the hesitant drums starting and dying down, and Kim Gordon murmuring breathy sweet nothings in your ears. All this before exploding into what is basically the Beach Boys for today: gorgeous melodic riffs, the driving beat, and Thurston Moore’s uncharacteristically emotional vocals.
For nearly seven minutes, the world stops, and instead of daydreaming about cruising the California beaches in a little deuce coupe, you imagine hanging out in your high school’s boys’ room smoking cigarettes between classes. And for nearly seven minutes, you find yourself wishing that all music could sound like this, though it’s probably a good thing it doesn’t, or nobody’d ever get anything done—we’d all just be sitting around drooling and smiling stupidly in perpetual aural bliss.
This is, of course, not meant to suggest that there is only one good song on Daydream Nation. In many ways, in talking about “Teen Age Riot” and its effect on me, I’ve been talking about the entire album. The epic beauty of Kim Gordon’s fittingly-named “The Sprawl” hits me the same way, and so does the almost-poppy “Total Trash,” the propulsive, in-your-face critique of Hollywood’s fakeness on “Kissability,” and the moody experiment of “Providence.” It’s all equally great, it all hits hard, and most importantly it all maintains that critical element of youthful indignation.
That indignation (and the band’s total disregard for rock music standards) may have been picked up from a steady diet of punk records, but everything else about the band transcends the simplistic, one-note implications of the “punk rock” moniker. This is simply a gorgeous record that both captures a moment in time, and creates a document that will likely find purchase with any generation, regardless of time. I imagine my kids picking up this album and identifying with its raw aggression and sheer uncompromising aesthetic. And a hundred years from now, the future’s high schoolers will still probably be spinning Daydream Nation, finding solace in the crunch of the guitars and the harsh bite of the lyrics.
But even for the grown-up kids like me, who don’t have that veil of puberty’s trials to view this record through, it remains a powerful experience. Discovering Daydream Nation, at any age, is discovering all over again the simple pleasures of music, finding once more what makes certain combinations of notes and chords resonate in our hearts and heads. No matter what your age, everyone needs that kind of rediscovery once in a while.
By: Ed Howard
Published on: 2003-09-01