Early on in career that spanned the years 1981-2011, Sonic Youth earned their spot as one of America’s quintessential modern rock bands and are almost the very definition of what became known as postpunk. Their three principal members, guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon, migrated to New York City and found their musical footing (and each other) as the mid to late-70s CBGB heyday was ending. They got their start in the noisy No Wave scene that followed and made their first recordings on a small label started by experimental composer Glen Branca, with whom both Moore and Ranaldo had played. Shirttails and a certain ironic detachment replaced the torn apparel and sneering attitudes of the early punk days. All three wrote and sang and the two guitarists were brash but studied sound architects while Gordon gave the group undeniable sex appeal. Sonic Youth remained fiercely independent even after their aggressive sound was tempered with the more conventional pop attributes that theoretically meant a larger fan base. They stuck with smaller indie labels right through to this, their fifth full-length album. Daydream Nation is the magnum opus of both their own career and of the downtown scene that spawned them. It is widely considered the band’s conceptual peak even though there would be many fruitful years to follow.
The impressive breadth of this double disc derives from a combination of a group writing spree and encouragement to commit to vinyl (and to cassette and CD, the late 1980s being the transitional era of formats) the extended noise rock jams and feedback frenzies that were long part of their live show. From its hand-to-mouth beginnings, SY could now book three weeks of studio time in advance, co-producing with noted hip-hop engineer Nick Sansano. Daydream Nation opens with the seven-minute anthem “Teenage Riot,” its most well-known number and a favorite of college radio back in the day. After eighty seconds of free-floating guitar notes and Gordon whispering sweet nothings to the listener, it kicks into gear with a relentless forward motion that carries all the way to the finish line. “Teenage Riot” is a call-to-arms directed at bored young people that in one way harkens back to the totemic songs of rock ‘n’ roll pioneers albeit with an updated snarky attitude (“You come running in on platform shoes/With Marshall stacks to at least just give us a clue”) and the attenuated values of a seen-it-all age (“It’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head/Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed”). Typical of the band’s singing, Thurston Moore delivers all this with a voice that rarely exceeds conversational volume—but when it comes to the instrumental work it’s a different kettle of fish. Halfway through the next number, “Silver Rocket,” there is a sudden eruption of overamplified six-string carnage before the determined full trot from drummer Steve Shelley’s snare kit pulls the tune back from the chaos.
Sonic Youth 1988. “You WILL like our ‘overamplified six-string carnage,'” insists Thurston Moore.
The rest of the album pretty much follows the same pattern. Razor’s edge punk riffing holds sway on a collection of mosh-worthy rockers that are often punctuated by atonal outbursts or gentler ambient passages, often as the prelude or postscript to a song. Many of feature the alternative tunings and effects favored by Moore and Ranaldo and beloved by guitar geeks not beholden to the blues-based model. There are several worthy additions to the Kim Gordon catalog of sultry/tough come-ons (in real life she and Moore had been married for four years), most notably on “Kissability” and “’Cross the Breeze”. Suffice to say when she sings, “Let’s go walking on the water/come all the way, please” it will sound as much of a challenge as an invitation.
Lee Ranaldo contributes three tracks including album highlight “Hey Joni”, a cock-eyed tribute to band fave Joni Mitchell. Although Ranaldo’s abstracted lyrics are a bit hard to get the measure of (“The time in the trees, we broke that vice/We took some steps and now we can’t think twice”) the intrigue over its subject’s transformation from Woodstock-era songbird to brittle iconoclast shows the SY’s keen sense of pop history. As if to underline it, there are also a couple of double-album gambits: a brief bit of musique concrete called “Providence” (Moore’s piano recorded on a Walkmen overlaid by a deadpan voice mail left by ex-Minutemen Mike Watt) and the closing 14-minute “Trilogy.” But no prog pretensions here when a three-parter means a patented Thurston Moore night-on-the-tiles raver, more dissonance and a Kim Gordon ditty called “Eliminator Jr.” Then Daydream Nation ends in mid-squall, as if no further concession to its own gravitas was needed.
Kim Gordon center stage as SY play CBGB in 1988.
The acclaim greeted DN may not have exactly resulted in sales that would warrant chart placement, but the increased stature of the band eased the move to David Geffen’s DCG label for the 1990 follow-up Goo. That yielded the signature smash “Kool Thing” whose alluring video was an MTV staple. Through the 90s the cult status of Sonic Youth grew from its base of late baby boomers (like themselves) to include many of the kids who hit their twenties just in time for the grunge scene. Daydream Nation started appearing on numerous all-time best-of lists as the group stuck to its guns like true believers of the rock continuum. As middle age approached, Moore and Gordon repaired from lower Manhattan to the calmer (but still hip) hinterlands of Northampton, Mass. By 2002, their daughter appeared on the cover of late-career highlight Murray Street. Although the couple (along with Sonic Youth) split up in 2011, the various members have kept their irons in the fire with other bands, solo records and (in the case of Kim Gordon) a high-profile memoir. Daydream Nation will likely continue to be a noise-rock touchstone as long as there are teenagers who need to riot.
With a copy of Daydream Nation and a change of clothes, I snuck out one night for the city.