Sonic Youth

Daydream Nation Reissue

(Blast First/Enigma/Geffen/Universal; 1988/2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 23 June 2007

Theses abound on Daydream Nation. It’s a cohesive formulation of the American underground from the ’80s. It’s a streamlined distillation of the bands prior work, the end of a process which began with EVOL (1986). It’s a consolidation of strengths. It’s a hedging of bets. t’s the Velvet Underground and Nico (1967) of the ’80s, a blueprint for indie rock bands that would follow. The title, then, like the two different candles on either jacket face, has a double meaning, two ways to look at the same phenomena. It gave a name to the legions of pig fuck, indie rock, no wave, hardcore bands working throughout the decade, and it sired a new generation with it, one who would look at those bands as founding fathers and mothers, xeroxed fanzines becoming as canonical texts.

All of that is certainly true, even if I wish more discussion was spent on why “‘Cross the Breeze” is the right fucking jam. But dropping that critical pose for a second, and diving deep into the headphones with fist raised and grin widened, one can see why the critical short hand makes sense. The song is an exercise in tension with no release, the hardcore precision of drummer Steve Shelly (the band’s unsung hero) providing the counterpoint that the equally beautiful and ugly guitar work needs. But there’s a point in that second thrash section where the low rumbling gives way to single notes, rung out like a clarion bell. That, for me, has always been the flash point, the instance where the band steps into a force like something out of the stoned hipster-voodoo they’re always singing about: whatever it is, it refocuses all the receptors in my brain. Then at a clip, the band drops the floor from under me, diving into a truly headbanging, half-time pound. They take a break for the vocal section of the song, if it could truly be called a
break: Shelly hitting every quarter note, a clock that you know will never stop ticking; Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo playing sloppy variations of a phrase across the stereo picture, like two lovers arguing to themselves about the other on either side of the room; Kim Gordon surveying the scene, aghast at someone calling her Satan’s daughter, singing as if the thought terrifies her. This is the band mapping out emotional territory, raising feelings you didn’t know you had. The stakes are high for listener and band alike, which is what makes the moment so good. What makes them Great, though, is that they never fail to remind you of their power: after this section the band reprises the thrash, raises it an octave, and then flies head first into a crashing, “A Day in the Life”-style chord. No wonder this record influenced so many people: it doesn’t sound like a nation being born only in retrospect, nothing so simple as “spot-the-influence.” It literally evokes the sound of gunfire, of the big bang, of synapses firing and computing in ways they never have before. In short, it’s the sound of one’s mind being blown.

That’s why Sonic Youth have the sort of cache they do. Thing is, “‘Cross the Breeze” is just one such relevatory moment amongst thirteen on Daydream Nation (sole exception: Mike Watt’s answering machine cameo on “Providence”). It’s relentless. As a purely functional entity, Daydream Nation is one of the most consistent records of the ’80s underground hey-day — which is no small feat considering it not only runs through the notorious pitfalls of the double record, but also holds its own with the other heavy hitters from that time, including their own Sister (1987). This is proven by the Deluxe Version’s bonus live disc, containing each song (yes, even “Providence,” evidently in use as a between-set interlude) from the album, completely out of order. The band has yet to release an official live album (several fan club releases and the semi-bootleg Walls Have Ears, issued in 1986 by Blast First without the knowledge or consent of Sonic Youth, notwithstanding), an astonishing statement for one of the best live bands of the last 25 years. If there is anything else in the vaults of the caliber of the Deluxe Edition’s second disc, it would be outrageous for one to go unmade.

It’s a testament to the band, I think, that the people whom they’ve so markedly influenced don’t actually sound much like them. For all their innovation and unfettered creativity, Sonic Youth were also consummate rip off artists: in the liner notes they cop to stealing ideas from a raft of sources — everyone from Denis Johnson to Slayer (Gordon notes that “‘Cross the Breeze” came after listening to Reign in Blood [1986]) is namechecked. Armed with that sort of information it’s easier to see, but the band had the sheer acumen to keep their sound expanding without losing their identity, and I think that may be the best characteristic they’ve passed on to their progeny. That’s why Daydream Nation, in any edition, is essential: the original album has yet to reach its sell-by date, and the live disc is the the sound of thousands of light bulbs turning on, a generation taking note, a nation finding its name.