Revisiting Sonic Youth's no-wave milestone, 'Daydream Nation'


By Brian Burlage, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 21, 2014

This past June, Sonic Youth announced a massive reissue launch campaign that would include their seminal 1988 album, Daydream Nation. 26 years have passed since its initial release, which, come to think of it, christens a rather odd anniversary date for a reissue. Why now? What designates 2014 as prime temporal real estate? The obvious answer (and also the wrong one) would be finances. While Sonic Youth have, for the better part of three decades, reigned supreme over avant-rock and independent circles – and even played the likes of Lollapalooza and Letterman – their total album sales hardly exceed the two million mark, which is fitting for a band that was once dubbed pigfuckers, antiheroes and idol killers.

There is, however, some justification for the odd timing of Daydream Nation’s reissue, but it doesn’t involve money, ownership rights or inspired commemoration. Turns out it’s much more simple: Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have separated. After 27 years of marriage, 15 albums, 13 labels and one child, Sonic Youth’s guitarist and bassist have parted ways both romantically and musically.

In May, Moore released a statement through Matador, the band’s most recent label, declaring soberly, “Sonic Youth is on hiatus. The band is a democracy of sorts, and as long as Kim and I are working out our situation, the band can’t really function reasonably.” As far as Sonic Youth public decrees go, this one was pretty out of character. For a band that has prided itself on creating long, epic, entrancing, animated bodies of music, this statement seemed almost consolatory. Could the umbrage-rulers of New York City’s underground music scene defensibly abdicate their throne with two sentences and a poof of smoke? How could a band so steeped in the rich history of noise rock quietly fade into the rear? Something seemed amiss.

To take this matter to the beginning, Sonic Youth formed in 1981 at the height of New York City’s No Wave movement. At that time, there was a small group of artists, musicians, directors and performers who had become disgruntled over the putrefying of mainstream genres with newly emerging electronic and disco trends. Artists of the New Wave – after which the No Wave moniker is borrowed – proclaimed to be the New Romantics, and for the frightful period of a few years groups like The Bangles seemed to be pulling fundamental rock in a hundred different directions. Sonic Youth and the No Wave movement refused to surrender control. After all, real rock music belonged to those who overstuffed their garages with cheap recording equipment. It belonged to those whose fingers bled after countless riff practices, to those who were forced out of loneliness to sit by the class’ pet frog in school, who revered the heaviness of Led Zeppelin and the Ramones, who built sonic monuments with crafted handheld instruments and most of all, rock belonged to those who knew and understood only one music theory lesson: dissonance. Unadulterated, in-your-face noise.

Daydream Nation explored dissonance with fascinating appeal. Over 70 minutes of sky-splicing guitar – fierce enough to the split the difference in NYC’s muddled music scene – would ultimately dictate the record’s influence over all alt-rock music to come. In 1988, Sonic Youth constructed a double-LP that, in light of popular music’s perplexing deviance, became a world of its own. Rife with its own legendry and character, having drawn from a limitless pool of urban invention, Daydream Nation centralized the No Wave underground scene and, accordingly, produced the value system for independent songwriting that a generation of affected musicians would implement habitually: music that could be artful, cultured, self-reliant, eclectic, visceral and insightful. Daydream Nation is a record in every sense of the word – it documents both the direction that guitar-driven rock music had taken up to that point and the direction that it would take long after. And like any great piece of history, the record continues to live and breathe through the arrested zeitgeist of its time.

“Teen Age Riot” draws back the curtain and addresses listeners with controlled aggression. This is due, in part, to producer Nick Sansano’s extensive work with early hip-hop artists, namely, Public Enemy. Sansano’s production hand is only felt in the record’s densest moments – not because of any tampering with the sound, but rather the lack thereof. Sansano gave Moore and Lee Ranaldo (occasional lyricist, regular guitarist) their own respective wavelengths, into which the duo stuffed dynamite and lit the fuses repeatedly. On “Teen Age Riot” they trade off rhythm and lead parts, and they play as though a ticking time bomb is attached to their ankles. With the general aim of noise, Moore and Ranaldo play their parts as Sansano likely intended, that is to say, not entirely in-sync. As a result, the track feels especially dissonant because for seven minutes not a single empty second registers.

Oddly enough, and in spite of the track’s title, the sound on “Teenage Riot” resembles more the aftermath of a riot than it does an actual riot. “Now I see it/I think I’ll leave it out of the way/Now I come near you/And it’s not clear why you fade away,” Moore sings honestly. Imagine a bunch of No Wave teenagers – angry, brash, upfront – standing to face a crowd of disco-dancers and computer geeks. When the moment of conflict arrives, instead of embracing it and flinging fists at their foes, the teenagers pause for a second and consider the problem with sensitivity.

Therein lies the crux of Sonic Youth’s ministry and the vast, referential scripture that is Daydream Nation: on the surface, the dissonance rendered by its blasting guitars seems to repel the breeziness of the New Wave. But the more you listen, and the further you venture into the October-like hue of the record’s atmosphere, the clearer its duality becomes.

As wonderfully noisy and fiery as the music is on Daydream Nation, Sonic Youth’s attempt to rescue rock through hard-boiled guitar (though successful) actually spawned an additional outcome. Any music theory lesson about dissonance introduces its equally powerful opposite, consonance. Consonance and dissonance operate like two sides of the same coin. The first side displays one image, the second displays another. While dissonant intervals create tension, consonant intervals create pleasance. Theoretically, like two sides to a coin, they cannot mix.

Often, in order to depart from the standard sound of an electric guitar, Moore and Ranaldo would experiment with tuning, and they would utilize several pre-tuned guitars for different songs. For example, “Eric’s Trip”, “Hey Joni” and “Kissability” each require EBEEAB tuning – a slight variation on the standard EBEEBE tuning used by Stephen Stills, Joni Mitchell and Aerosmith. Consequently, the songs sound distinguished without sounding irregular. Ranaldo even conceives of his own tuning on “Candle” and “Silver Rocket”, a fix that suffuses napalm across the two soundscapes. By displacing ordinary scales, Moore and Ranaldo open up a tonal limbo, in which consonance and dissonance seemingly bleed into one another.

“Candle” evinces this idea particularly well. At about the one-minute mark, Moore, Ranaldo and Gordon settle into an ominous groove, and it becomes extremely difficult to put a finger on those writhing, keyed up chords. Like a spuming whale spout in an ocean typhoon, they can hardly be processed. No categorization befalls them. And as Moore sings, “I see a dog star divin’ at his magic, snatchin’/Keeps me up awake go crystal cracking,” the fissure of understanding widens. Suddenly, the band breaks into the chorus and a trebled note sequence cascades like jewels from the sky. With its volcanic downpour of off-pitch melody, “Candle” eludes convention.

But if any track on Daydream truly dwells in the band’s self-produced limbo, it’s “Providence”. Centered around the incessant whimper of a dying amplifier, the track combines a Walkman-captured piano solo, a sarcastic voicemail message (from friend Mike Watt who was calling from Providence, Rhode Island) and all the nostalgia of a home-recording. Played in full, the sound on “Providence” teleports us back to Nevada’s nuclear test site in 1955, when a group of army engineers dropped an atom bomb on a town filled with mannequins and fake homes. If, before the drop, an engineer had rigged the inside of one of those homes with a microphone, pressed play on an old-timey piano track and let it sit through the explosion, “Providence” would have been the result. As with the record itself, it’s not music so much as it is timeless artistry.

For many noise/punk/indie rock fans in late ‘80s, Daydream Nation emerged like a Phoenix from ash and rubble. It struck a peculiar frequency across the American underground, and it resonated especially with urban teens, bohemians and struggling big-city rock musicians, who, for the previous five or six years, had surrendered their hopes of attaining record deals to the flashy, manufactured acts of the New Wave. Kim Gordon’s fearless vocalism – “Let’s go walkin’ on water/Now you think I’m Satan’s daughter” – on tracks like “Cross the Breeze” and “Kissability” reinforced female sexuality as a powerful and intimidating force in its own right, drawing many young women to the band in the process. At their live shows, quiet fans were moved to dance, fulfilled either through head thrashing or body throwing, as they sang along without reserve. The record inspired bands with little or no money for recording costs to just play for the sake of playing – proving too that in the ceaseless voracity of guitar rock there whispered an undying mantra: to dream is to be infallible.