Well, this is the one. This is the album that I start everyone off with. It is their undisputed classic. Daydream Nation. Even the name, to me anyway, is enigmatic. It’s just perfect, flawless in every way. The opening, the close. There is not one bad thing to say about this album. I may be letting my bias show, but I am also the one that wears a toque with “Sonic Youth” sewed into it every day once the temperature goes below 50º.
Anyway, I still remember getting this album on cassette. I like to tell myself (and others) that it is the first album that I ever bought. And though this story isn’t completely accurate (we all had our unfortunate phases when we were too young to know what it meant to listen to good music. Though, I have met some people that really haven’t had one of those phases. I am extremely jealous that those people didn’t have to go through an MC Hammer phase and a whatever the hell else phase. I listened to Top 40 radio a lot until I was like 10. So sue me.) but in a way it is the truth. Buying Daydream Nation was the first album that I ever bought that ever mattered. I never looked back, and I still haven’t. I can’t even imagine how many times I have listened to this album.
I still remember getting the tape and looking through the pictures and the lyrics and just staring at it. Everything was just part of a complete package. The color scheme, the mood of the pictures with their grainy, hazy focus of the band standing in (what I assume is) the Bowery near CBGB’s (totally guessing there, but just going with what I was thinking then) and the cover photo (which I didn’t know at the time was a famous painting, a painting which I have been lucky enough to see in person in Chicago. It was an amazing experience standing in front of that painting, with its meaning sort of reversed in a way that the painting now described the album to me, whereas when I first heard the album, it was, to me, describing the sound of that painting) and just everything seemed to be so focused and purposeful. I can’t be alone in thinking that the sound of Lee’s disintegrating amp throughout “Providence” is meant to sound like a burning candle, giving sound to the cover? And, of course, there is the song “Candle,” but that is too obvious.
And how could those sounds be so purposeful? How could the howling guitars that blasted out of the middle of “Silver Rocket” possibly be directed, or purposeful? I didn’t know the word ‘aleatory’ back then, but I know that I was thinking about how they got those sounds – that sounded so random and scattered and loud and noisy and…great – to do what they wanted them to do? How was it that they were able to tame the wild feedback and static into the form of the songs?
I still wonder about these things to this day. It just seems like all of the elements were perfect when they were recording the album. All the mistakes fit perfectly into the aesthetic of the album. The interactions of the guitars, the structure of the songs, the lyrics, the focus, this was an already amazing band making a giant leap forward in their sound. Sure, like I said in previous posts, the sounds on “Sister,” and even as far back as “Bad Moon Rising,” were pointing to this, we all knew that something like this was on the way (well, I mean people at the time that were paying attention knew. I was only 7 when the album came out. I had no clue what was going on, I was home learning to do multiplication or something like that), maybe not something exactly like this, I don’t think that this is the kind of album that anyone completely expects. There is definitely going to be a certain amount of surprise at hearing something this great for the first time. I mean, I know that it caught me off guard.
In a way though, this album is sort of bittersweet. I really don’t think that they ever got any higher than this. This was their last release before they signed to DGC, and though I love some of those albums, most of those albums, I don’t think that they were ever able to keep the magic that was on “Daydream Nation.”
And that is part of the reason why this album is so special. It was a moment in time. It was something that even the band themselves could not replicate, and who knows if they even wanted to. This was Sonic Youth at the peak of their powers, and it has had an immeasurable impact upon my life to this day. I’m still trying to convince students that they want to take my class on post-tonal analysis that uses Sonic Youth’s output as the corpus that we’d analyze. There is just so much here. So many conventions that are shattered, so much individuality and energy and vision. I could go on for days about all the things that I remember when I first heard this album.
I truly hope that another album will come along that even makes me feel 1/10th as good as I felt when I first heard Daydream Nation, and I know that it will come someday, but at the same time I know that I’m going to be waiting for a long time before it happens.