The culture and the legend of Sonic Youth sometimes seem larger than the band itself. They’re often credited with having opened the floodgates for the wave of 1990s alternative rock, which is somewhat true, considering they would often influence signings to DGC Records that decade, including Nirvana. Sonic Youth is also frequently viewed as genre transcendent, essentially playing rock music, but often favoring noise to melody. They release their own experimental compositions on their own label, while each member is involved in any number of other projects, including other labels they’ve started, such as Smells Like or Ecstatic Peace. The band has appeared on Gilmore Girls and The Simpsons, curated few music festivals, and released no fewer than three masterpieces, and, depending on who you ask, as many as six or seven. Even before hearing the band’s music, I was well informed of the culture of Sonic Youth, which was as intimidating as it was alluring. But one listen to Daydream Nation convinced me; the outward minutiae of the band may be important to understanding the band on some level, but it’s their music that truly matters.
That intro might be a little misleading. You see, Daydream Nation wasn’t actually my first Sonic Youth album. Goo was, and to be quite honest, it blew me away. It’s still one of my favorite records. Daydream Nation was actually my second SY purchase, and though I was already won over by the band’s abrasive, off-kilter dynamics, I wasn’t prepared for such an epic, swirling mass of guitar drones and intermingling riffs. Unable to immediately get my head around everything the album had to offer, I was taken aback by its immensity. I would spend late nights listening to Daydream Nation in my bedroom, soaking in every note, every scratch, every clang. As an album, Daydream Nation contains varied curious sounds and textures, and I wanted to take in all of it.
The first song on the album, “Teen Age Riot,” wasn’t a hard one to digest. In fact, it was something of a college radio sensation, and thus ushered in the era of alternative rock. Conceived as a teenage dream of a world where J Mascis is president, “Teen Age Riot” was an anthem, and the band’s most accessible song at that point. It’s not so surprising that it became so huge, considering how catchy and rocking it was. No feedback drones, no noise breakdowns, no difficulty. I mean, there is the ambient intro, which finds Kim Gordon chanting odd lines like “spirit desire” and “say it, don’t spray it.” When the song starts up, however, Thurston Moore’s vocal guidance and melodic guitar work drive the song toward Mascis-land: “Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’/A cord and a pedal and a lock/that’ll do me for now.”
Beyond “Teen Age Riot,” things become less coherent, but not necessarily any less listenable. Track two, “Silver Rocket,” is much more “punk,” speeding toward a bizarre, almost Burroughs-like pseudo-futuristic fantasy, crash landing somewhere in the middle at one of their characteristic noise breaks, but painting odd, space age imagery during its breakneck verses: “you got to splice your halo/take it to the moon/nymphoid clamor/fuelling the hammer/you got to fake out the robot and pulse up the zoom.” The two tracks that follow are a even more disorienting, including “The Sprawl,” an almost stream of consciousness drone rocker that was the longest track the band had recorded up to that point, and “Cross the Breeze,” which comes close, beginning with a melancholy jangle and escalating to a manic, high-speed death train of riffs and Kim Gordon’s atonal caterwaul.
“Eric’s Trip” marks the first of three songs sung by Lee Ranaldo, as Daydream Nation was the first album on which Ranaldo sings more than one song. The song is an oddly-tuned splatter of guitar churn, making for a trippy, yet oddly catchy experience, making it a longtime live staple. When the band’s home-tweaked instruments were stolen in the late ’90s, one of the instruments lost was a fretless guitar with bass strings used by Thurston Moore to create the woozy sound, and they were unable to play “Eric’s Trip” for some time. Coincidentally, a guitar tech named Eric converted an old guitar he had lying around to be the “new Drifter,” and thus, the song has made its way back into the group’s sets. Ranaldo’s other songs here include “Hey Joni,” a slightly more straightforward rocker with a wash of noise hovering just above the song’s buzzsaw melodies, and “Rain King,” a rumbling mass of drums and dissonant guitar riffs.
One of the more melodically interesting tracks on Daydream Nation is “Candle,” which ties into the artwork of two photorealist candles, one on each side of the LP. The song opens with some dreamy guitar passages, then bursts into a minor key chord barrage, then transitioning to a more straightforward verse and chorus, with Moore’s memorably ridiculous lyrics, such as “I’m the cocker of the rock.” Gordon’s “Kissability” is also a standout, a careening, adrenaline-rushing tongue-in-cheek male fantasy with a handsome supply of drunken, nightmarish melodies.
Sonic Youth close off Daydream Nation with their “Trilogy,” in parts “a,” “b” and “z,” beginning with “The Wonder,” a dizzying mess of alternate tunings and quickening rhythms. “Hyperstation,” at seven minutes in length, continues the trilogy with a more moderate pace and dreamier passages of drones and scrapes. Part “z” is “Eliminator Jr.,” named by crossing Dinosaur Jr. with ZZ Top’s Eliminator closes the album with a noisy, anarchic noise punk blast with Kim Gordon screeching over the mess. And for Sonic Youth trainspotters, some may have noticed that the repeating riff in “Hyperstation” resurfaced on 2004’s Sonic Nurse on “Pattern Recognition.”
As I’ve written all of this, I realize just how difficult it is to put into words what makes Daydream Nation so fascinating. Mostly, it’s that there’s nothing that sounds like it. And more importantly, there’s very little that sounds this good. I’m still trying to get my head around this mighty record, and I’m certain that I will actually hear something new in each listen, which is an impressive feat, considering I’ve listened to it a lot over the past decade. There are countless fans who call this album their finest, while many others claim to not “get it,” or prefer different albums. The band’s catalog as a whole is pretty impressive, but I may have to side with the traditionalists on this one.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.