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.
What I'm going to say here doesn't apply to “Teen Age Riot,” because “Teen Age Riot” is incredible.
I'm still in awe of that song, which I was astonished to discover stretches to nearly seven minutes; it always seems to be over too soon. Everything I'd read about the wonderful things Sonic Youth do on Daydream Nation—the marriage of Art and Rock, the guitar heroics, the sheer flow of the music—I can hear on “Teen Age Riot.” Part of this is the song’s structure; there's no chorus, or it's all chorus, just endless lines drawled out by Thurston Moore punctuated by that effortless, almost cheerful guitar riff. It feels deep but weightless, significant but effervescent.
So when I first listened to Daydream Nation at the urging of friends I was in love for seven minutes. Unfortunately, I then had to sit there for 63 more, baffled by the rest of the record. It was the same sort of thing, the same ingredients, but it didn't move me. It didn't even seem to move itself. “Deep” and “significant,” sure, but it had lost the lightness of touch so crucial to “Teen Age Riot.” For the first time I viscerally understood what “navel gazing” meant, and everyone else seemed to adore it (this is, after all, one of the very few rock records now in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry). It's almost alchemical, what “Teen Age Riot” does, but the band only manages to turn lead into gold once.
While “Teen Age Riot” was both instantly appealing and repeatedly rewarding, the rest of Daydream Nation was instantly bland and impossible to work my way into. But I was still naïve enough to think that if I didn't like a “classic” album the fault must lie with me. I spent diligent months listening, trying vainly to get through the entirety of “Trilogy” without dozing off. (To this day Daydream Nation shares with The Lord of the Rings the dubious distinction of being the only art that can compel me to nap.) Plenty of other music I loved was somehow similar to this album; why couldn't I get into it?
For starters: I could never tell what track I was on, because they all blended together. But not in the wonderful way some of the more abstract records I'd heard did, where blending seemed to be part of the point. This was more just like the band was playing the same song over and over again. Only not like the Ramones did, where again this monotony of structure was made into a virtue; it was more as if Sonic Youth was taking all these qualities other bands made into strengths and inverting them into weaknesses.
The comment that raised the most debate here at Stylus was when someone called Sonic Youth an “art rock jam band,” and while fans correctly pointed out that the tag is overly flippant and dismissive I think there is a core of truth there. Daydream Nation is packed full of lengthy, well… jams, and live the band has often stretched out and expanded songs. To be fair, Sonic Youth are far from the only band you could frame in this way. My beloved Yerself Is Steam/Boces-era Mercury Rev was certainly engaging in the same sort of thing. But one of the things I love so much about that version of Mercury Rev was the sense of anarchic adventure, and whereas I always thought of them as Technicolor, Daydream Nation's palette seemed as drab as the painting on the cover: all browns and grays with the occasional bright light.
If I could hear more there now than I did then I could chalk my initial reaction up to immature ears, but even today the guitars on much of Daydream Nation are among my least favourite on any rock record. They often sound untethered to the rest of the songs (as on “Rain King”), and except for on “Teen Age Riot,” never actually do anything interesting. If I want a steady churn I’ll go listen to my washing machine. The rhythm section, which I’ve heard is amazing elsewhere, is here at best perfunctory and usually pretty unremarkable. And it always sounded to my teenage self as if Thurston and Kim—those hip, informed NYC artists—were sneering at the listener and nothing they said was actually smart enough to justify the cleverer/cooler-than-thou vibe.
But really, it’s not really the music or the band that I'm taking issue with. I'm mad at the people who told me I had to love it since it's such a great, seminal album, those who continued to insist that “man, it’ll grow on you” after I’d given up on it. And I'm mad at myself for falling for it, for wasting my time, for not having the courage of my convictions when I was younger, for not just turning the damn thing off after the first couple of times and going, “aside from a couple of songs I think this is crap.” For not having the confidence to listen to my own instincts. Whatever youthful joy of discovery I find harder to locate as I grow older and have heard more and more music is almost outweighed by being more in touch with my own tastes as a result. I doubt I'm the only person who slowly came to realize that just because Daydream Nation was lionized I didn't like it and didn’t have to, but I'm not really even trying to spur on some massive re-evaluation of the disc. I don't care if you guys want to adore Daydream Nation; all I'm asking is that you don't care that I can't stand it.