Post-punk pantheon

By PHOENIX STAFF  |  July 16, 2007

And, to the extent that it was possible, Sonic Youth were aware that they’d reached an important turning point. There’s just no other way to explain titles such as Daydream Nation and “Teenage Riot,” the album’s first song. Or the four Led Zep zoso-mocking symbols that adorn the double album. Or their decision to follow in Public Enemy’s footsteps by recording with engineer Nick Sansano at Green Street Studio.

Thurston Moore sums it up quite well in Matthew Stearns’s 33-1/3 mini-book devoted to the album: “I think Daydream Nation came at a significant yet transitional time in American underground rock mitosis. Form and content were aching to break all parameters and run into the new decade. It was a liberation from the heady collectiveness of hardcore-infused scene dynamics and an embracing of what we wanted to do beyond that world, one which we predated artistically and one we knew we had to blast forth from.”

Or maybe not. The real triumph of Daydream Nation exists in the songs themselves: the humming guitars, the kinetic drum pounding, the ebb and flow of melody and dissonance, and the sense of purpose that propels “Teenage Riot” from the glassy dreamscape of Kim Gordon’s intro through the charged exhaustion Moore channels into his celebration of rock and roll. Ranaldo and Moore’s guitars tumble around and unite before surging in frenetic abandon. But this time the guitars return to some semblance of order, creating the foundation of a recognizable verse/chorus/verse structure, as Steve Shelley maintains a solid 4/4 backbeat. It’s a Sonic Youth song that doesn’t just fall off a cliff into an avant abyss, the way “Schizophrenia” and so many of the band’s previous songs had.

And so it became the band’s first real college-radio hit, bringing Sonic Youth to the attention of the execs at Geffen, who would go on to release Goo in 1990. In fact, the blueprint for the Sonic future can be found in the first three tracks on Daydream Nation, as Thurston drives the band furiously through “Silver Rocket,” with its punkish pace and white-noise refrain, before ceding the spotlight to Gordon for the spoke-sung, free-associative sexual politicking of “The Sprawl” (“To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips/I’ve gone native/I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell/Does this sound simple?/Fuck you/Are you for sale?”).

The next decade and a half of alternative and indie rock in three songs: not too bad. It does sound simple. But the subtext of Daydream Nation had to be teased out. There’s a depth here that demands exploration. There were no blogs or Internet message boards when Daydream Nation came out. You had to know a friend of a friend of a guy who knew Sonic Youth, dig through stacks of zines, or happen to catch some snippet of a college-radio interview with the band to know, for example, that “Eric’s Trip” was inspired by Warhol film star Eric Emerson. And what about that trilogy of songs that ends the album? “a) The Wonder”; “b) Hyperstation”; and “z) Eliminator Jr.”? Were Sonic Youth headed off on a prog-rock journey, or were they wryly toying with themselves and their fans? Did it matter? All of these open questions were as integral to the Daydream Nation experience as the unusual guitar tunings Ranaldo and Moore were known to use.

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