My Bloody Valentine / David Bowie / Sonic Youth

Loveless / Low / Daydream Nation

(Creation / RCA / Enigma; 1991 / 1977 / 1988)

By Matt Stephens | 1 September 2005

This review was originally published as part of our CMG is 3 feature. Here is the request letter:

I would like to see your reviews of David Bowie’s ‘Low’ and Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’, seeing as PF rated them the best albums of the 70s and 80s respectively.

–Ed Gordon

I’m going to include (one of) their ’90s #1, Loveless. Just because.

It’s interesting that these are the albums that ended up topping each list, as they’re all records I own and admire a great deal, but whose all-encompassing classic status has always kind of puzzled me. I’ve had a lot of trouble getting into them—they’re all pretty great, the kind of albums that feature really great songs that obscured by some kind of inspired artiness, be it Brian Eno’s futuristic digi-funk, 5-minute noise freakouts, or oceans of semi-melodic feedback and indecipherable vocals.

Low might be my favourite of the bunch, the first and best of the three collaborations between Bowie and Eno in Berlin. The atmospherics are nothing short of incredible, beginning with the meticulously arranged synth-symphony of “Speed of Life” and continuing with the ultra-cool two-minute mindfuck of “Breaking Glass.” “Sound and Vision” has a catchy guitar hook and a sputtering bassline that helped make it a hit on British radio despite the fact that there are no vocals for the first 90 seconds of the song. More conventional is “Be My Wife,” if only for the fact that it has a discernable verse-chorus structure, as well as some more miraculous bass work. Where Low starts to lose me a little is with the instrumental pieces in its second half. While the gorgeous “Warszawa” is the reason headphones were invented, some of it, particularly “Weeping Wall” and “Subterraneans” drag a bit, and hardly feel like Bowie had much hand in them anyway.

Daydream Nation is generally thought of as the go-to Sonic Youth album, but I’ve never understood why. Yes, there are some truly great songs here—“Teenage Riot,” “Kissability,” “Total Trash,” “Rain King”—but for me at least, 70 minutes is about 30 too many for an SY album, and it drags in places. I still can’t sit through “Cross the Breeze,” and I’ve yet to hear a good reason for the existence of “Providence” (Ed: But…but…). While Daydream Nation sounds better than any other Sonic Youth album (excepting possibly Murray Street), it’s hard to get through in a single sitting, and I feel like the band stretches its good ideas further than they need to on most of the albums songs.

I have this sort of tradition with a friend of mine where whenever we go to a party we always bring along a copy of Loveless, and, at the peak of the festivities (both in the party and, usually, our livers) play the first two seconds of “Only Shallow” over and over again until we’re eventually asked to stop. And it’s no wonder, because the first two seconds of “Only Shallow” are the best two seconds of music ever recorded. And I like a lot of the rest of it, too, like the lush dreamscapes of “I Only Said” or “Blown a Wish.” The record sounds totally huge, and every moment of it is produced to oceanic perfection, but some of the songs feel too hazy for their own good, like “To Here Knows When,” which I always skip. It’s an album that can be awesome when I’m in a particularly sleepy and melancholy state of mind, but it’s not an album I feel the need to pick up very often, and certainly not one I’d put as the very best of the ’90s.

I’d like to qualify everything I’ve said about these records with this: in not loving any of these albums, I’m not attempting to deny them their classic status. They probably deserve it. Each is the work of one or a group of sonic geniuses, and I’ve always felt that my not totally “getting” them is not the fault of the artists, but of me. In fact, you can consider this something like a midnight confession from a snobby music journalist—here are three albums I know I’m supposed to love, but, despite years of effort, just can’t seem to.