Daydream Nation (reissue) – Sonic Youth
Sometime around 1990, a few years late, I grabbed Daydream Nation on cassette. I knew from the first lustrous notes of "Teenage Riot" that I had found my new favorite record, that Sonic Youth would change my musical world, that new doors were opening, that everything was falling into place. A few songs later, I wasn’t so sure. By the time the tape had flipped, I was probably digging in my console for Master of Puppets. I was a fading metal head, and the wandering Youthians just weren’t doing it for me: too noisy, too complicated, too weird. I could get behind the thump’n‘thud of "Eric’s Trip," but the swirling snarl of those guitars was just too much for me. Songs drifted in and out of tempos, the guitars sounded like they were coming unplugged, and there wasn’t a single face-melting throw-your-fists-in-the-air solo on the whole damn record. It was another few years (after I had gorged myself on thud, thump, and crunch) before I was ready for Sonic Youth, and when I was, Daydream Nation (then 6-7 year old) sounded entirely fresh. Much to its credit, on this 20th Anniversary Deluxe Edition re-release it still does.
Unlike the Minutemen's Double Nickels on the Dime or Husker Du’s Zen Arcade or any of the other watershed records of its time, this one doesn’t bear a time stamp, doesn’t bear the stains of late ’80s sensibilities or the marks of a movement. Like any classic, it sounds timeless. And this record is classic in the purest sense. It’s imitated, echoed, and name-checked as much as any record in the indie world. More importantly though, it’s an album that reveals itself slowly, very slowly. No matter how many times you spin it, there is always something new to find. Like a good book, it feels new even when you know it inside and out, and you "read" it in a different way at different stages of your life. That’s the mark of a classic—it’s presence is so strong, so solid that revisiting it shows you how much you’ve changed in the interim.
So here I am, thoroughly "rereading" Daydream Nation for the third time. The stuff that gripped me the first time through is of course still sticky. "Teenage Riot" is what it is. You could quickly fill a two hour playlist with the songs that mimic its guitar sound. "Silver Rocket" still kicks. Kim Gordon’s "Kissability" is still the fully-fucked, gender-flipped, power-mad come on it always was—exactly the kind of song only Gordon could pull off. You could say the same for "Eliminator, Jr." which had just enough big dumb crunch and big dumb fun (with Gordon screaming "Shit yeah!") to sink in. But the stuff that turned metal-head-me off then sucks me in now. "The Sprawl" yawns out with guitar lines entwining and letting go, panning from side to side while Steve Shelley shimmers away on the cymbals. It’s mesmerizing, fluid, and exactly the kind of crap that pushed me away as a kid. Then, I couldn’t handle the "noise" of "Total Trash," which of course isn’t noise at all. Now, the jam evolves with pinging guitars that don’t pong back as Shelley’s thuds again fade away before the song proper re-emerges at a fully doped-up swagger, still dazed by the interrupting jam. With my now limbered ears, I want to kick that kid I was for missing the logic of it.
In the liner notes, Gordon says, "It doesn't take great playing or even great sound to make a great album." What it does take, of course, is great songs, and the second disc of this collection, which compiles live cuts of each song on the original double LP, proves that this record has them in abundance. The tracks, recorded everywhere from Maxwell's to CBGB to the Paradiso in Amsterdam, come stripped of most effects—more urgent, rockier, and perhaps more accessible. The result is that you realize first how much these stripped songs rock and then how much Steve Shelley's drumming drives them. "'Cross the Breeze" comes clamoring out of the gates minus the nuance and whaps you about the head properly, but even "Eric's Trip" (with less of the swirly-swirly) finds the band ripping above Shelley's battery to keep up and/or stay ahead. Even Lee Ranaldo's snarky "Kick it!" shout in "Hey Joni" sounds less ironic here as Shelley does indeed keep kicking the drum and driving the band onward. And from the "The World's Still Trying to Catch up to Late Eighties Sonic Youth" file, it's also worth noting "Total Trash," which comes with an intro ("Totally Trashed") full of the who-the-hell-knows-what kinda sampling which, when joined by a mimicking guitar, could easily pass for now.
The second disc concludes with four covers, the best of which is easily the frizzly psychedelia of the Beatles' "Within You, Without You." Gordon's take on Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" is hilarious, and their take on Neil Young's "Computer Age" is dandy, but they all feel a bit secondary here. Even Lee Ranaldo's demo take of "Eric's Trip" feels mishandled. The track itself is just the kind of bare-boned goodness you want from a demo, but it is appended to first disc (the album proper) and somehow violates the sanctity of that disc itself.
Still, as re-releases go, this does everything it should. It puts the record in context, fleshes out the affair with revelatory un-released material, and reminds you why it always tops the Best Albums Since Ever lists. The packaging is great, and the liner notes are full of gems like the assertion that the lyrics to "Sprawl" are literal transcriptions of "crackhound conversational gambits" overheard on the street or that Henry Rollins wanted to hear SY stretch out and jam on this record. If there's a complaint to be made, it's against the mis-placed demo and the comparatively trivial covers. Anything, in essence, that takes us out of rather than into this record is unwelcome. There's still so much to be found by simply revisiting the record and mining the live cuts that anything else just seems superfluous. You can write that down as the mark of a classic too.