I don’t expect to hear too many complaints about the rating above. Daydream Nation is a great uniter: You’d be hard pressed to find many fans of indie rock who don’t have some love for this record. That’s partly because this record is great, sure—that’s one boring reason—but it’s also because this record is one of a handful that helped shape the notion of what American indie rock can potentially mean. It’s almost a tautology: Indie fans love Daydream Nation because loving stuff like Daydream Nation is part of how we define what indie fans are.
Not that there wasn’t plenty of underground music in the U.S. before this album’s 1988 release—hardcore punk, high-art avant garde, quirky college rock, DIY, weirdo regional scenes. But the notion that all those Reagan-era discontents might be in the same boat—a new Alternative Nation just beginning to converge—hadn’t yet been fully articulated. Sonic Youth sensed that convergence in the making, and they were pretty sure it had something to do with Dinosaur Jr.: “A new aesthetic of youth culture,” Thurston Moore called it in Matthew Stearns’ 33 1/3 book about the album, “wherein anger and distaste, attributes associated with punk energy, were coolly replaced by head-in-the-clouds outer limits brilliance.” Right. So the band writes the most glorious, accessible pop song of its career, calling it “J Mascis for President”—i.e., an underground-rock campaign song—and it kicks off this record under the title “Teen Age Riot.” What does that sound like if not the grand calling-together of a nascent underground audience?
Sonic Youth don’t set the song up as a call to arms. Instead, Thurston, singing, is in bed, just like you might be while listening to it—or to Bug, or Surfer Rosa, or Isn’t Anything, all of which came within the same year. Just two motes of potential energy, both waiting for Mascis to “Come running in on platform shoes/With [his] Marshall stack/To at least just give us a clue.” The video for this song contains more images of musicians who aren’t in Sonic Youth than musicians who are: Ian MacKaye, Patti Smith, Mark E. Smith, Iggy Pop, Black Flag, Sun Ra, Daniel Johnston, Neil Young, the Beach Boys—a crash course in what still, almost 20 years later, looks like an indie canon.
Following that, the band spends this double album managing to inhabit just about every major strain of the underground, collecting and referencing each facet of what this “new youth culture” might look like:
- avant-garde Downtown NYC new music, complete with odd harmonic collisions and screwdrivers wedged in guitars
- hardcore punk sneering and double-time drumbeats
- good old off-kilter, accessible collegiate pop music
- gorgeous, oceanic “head-in-the-clouds outer limits” guitar stuff, which– along with the previous year’s releases from My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr., and the Pixies—would define indie rock’s guitar vocabulary as much as anything this side of Joy Division/New Order
- high-art, film, and literary references, ranging from the album cover (a Gerhard Richter painting) to the lyrics (which borrow from an Andy Warhol film and books by Harry Crews and Denis Johnson—and this is before Denis Johnson published Jesus’ Son)
- giant tongue-near-cheek rock gestures, like including a three-part “trilogy” and four Led Zeppelin-style icons representing the band members
- slacker poses and goofy skater-kid trash culture
- ambitious art-world braininess
- the other
All melted down into one lump: “Seamless” isn’t even the word.
Of course, now that a whole genre’s grown out from Daydream Nation’s roots, all its “difficult” sounds, modified guitars, and strange collisions have become de riguer, invisible, and normalized, more clearly revealing the shimmering pop epics that always lay beneath. What’s really shocking is the energy of it. This record’s default setting is the place most rock bands try to work up to around the third chorus—guitar players veering off into neck-strangling improvisations, singers dropping off the melody and into impassioned shouts. These songs start there and just stay. Usually the guitars spend a few bars wandering off and into sideways tangles, choking out their harmonies, and then come back together and spend a few bars pinning down the riff: On “’Cross the Breeze,” that means Kim Gordon keeps returning to the same refrain, each time grunting it more insistently than the last. Sometimes they don’t even stay there: Lee Ranaldo’s “Hey Joni” starts off already on some next level of energy, and then Lee shouts “kick it!” and the band ratchets up to some next next level, and then he coasts up to one exhilarating shouted “HEY!” and the band bursts through a ceiling higher than you could have imagined at the start of the track. It’s the kind of transcendent glory that crosses genres and even arts: that same in-the-zone feeling you get from a be-bop combo in top gear, a rapper at the absolute clear-eyed peak of his game—hell, even an athlete in perfect function.
Lyrically, it’s Thurston who turns in the rock slacker trash: When he’s not just lying in bed, heÆs wandering around downtown Manhattan, getting mugged, blowing up amplifiers, and talking in a stoned skater-kid argot (“you got to fake out the robot!”). Lee, being Lee, exists on some more mystical future/past plane, located in dreams and open fields instead of on the Bowery. Kim’s lyrics are the brutal, terrifying ones, each song outlining a flirtation with some demonic jerk. In “Kissability,” it’s a rotten entertainment mogul, pledging “you could be a star” and probably playing with himself under his desk. In “Eliminator Jr,” it’s Robert Chambers, the teenage rich-kid “Preppy Murderer,” and a horrible little shit even before he raped and strangled Jennifer Levin behind the Met in Central Park. In “’Cross the Breeze,” it may be the devil himself.
This reissue does what reissues have to do these days, raising the volume to compete with all the over-compressed new stuff on your mp3 player. Someone’s clearly taken care with the process, making sure not to spoil the wide dynamics of this music, but this kind of re-master isn’t the best fit for the open-room feel of the original: I’d be lying if I said the crystalline brambles of guitar in these songs didn’t suffer a little from being flattened out like this. (Steve Shelley’s busy, subtle drumming gets a particularly raw deal.) Mild audiophiles—or anyone attached to the feel of the original CD and LP issues-—might want to spring for the vinyl re-release.
On the plus side, this package is well aware that Daydream Nation is for celebrating Daydream Nation, and that there are already record stores where you can spend a year’s salary on Sonic Youth rarities. Never mind the four covers included, or the home demo of “Eric’s Trip” that quietly fades out the album disc: The treat, for this album’s devotees, is a terrific, seamless collection of album-contemporary live performances, touching on every song on the album. (Yes, even “Providence.”) It’s a thrill, and not just for those who’ve heard this record enough times to need a fresh perspective. Daydream Nation was one great, liberated scribble on the mostly blank slate of what underground rock was starting to become, and through these tracks you get to hear the band take it out on the road and show it to everyone—playing loose, sliding energetically through things they made precise on record. And, 12 tracks in, taking their J Mascis campaign song on a Straight Talk Expressway to Yr Skull.