Daydream Nation and the Speculative Music of Sonic Youth

In October of 1988, Sonic Youth released Daydream Nation, an album littered with references to the speculative cyberpunk fiction of William Gibson. While I have never read Gibson’s work (though I have seen the god-awful film adaptation Johnny Mnemonic), it is my understanding that his writing predicted many of the technological and cultural developments we now take for granted, including the ubiquitous influence of computers and the Internet on our daily lives. Just as Gibson’s writings predicted these developments in technology, so too did Daydream Nation predict developments in rock music; if there is such a thing as “speculative music,” then surely Sonic Youth’s sprawling masterpiece (and really their early career as a whole) falls squarely into this category.

Daydream Nation saw Sonic Youth finally striking the perfect balance between pop/rock-based song structures and the noise/no-wave motherfuckery of their previous five albums. Taking that noise and molding it into something catchy and coherent predated the alternative rock explosion of 1991, when Nirvana would blow the scene wide open with Nevermind, an album that toned down the approach of bands like Sonic Youth and the Pixies into something more palatable for the masses, by a full three years.

In fact, the lyric “It better work out / I hope it works out my way / ’cause it’s getting kind of quiet in my city’s head / Takes a teen age riot to get me out of bed right now” from Daydream Nation’s opening track “Teen Age Riot,” seems to foreshadow the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment that would follow Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the music industry machine’s subsequent reassertion of its reign of blandness and mediocrity over the mainstream. The musical revolution that alternative rock promised crumbled to bits around us; I was only fifteen when Cobain blew his brains out, but I distinctly remember the feeling that all was lost, hanging my head and wearing my “Sliver” t-shirt until it pretty much disintegrated. Perhaps if I hadn’t been nine years old when Daydream Nation was released, I would’ve seen it coming.

Not only is the album lyrically prescient, it is also musically forward-thinking. Guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s use of alternative tunings and prepared guitars is well-documented, but the importance of this simply cannot be overstated. The duo’s approach ushered in a new era for guitar-based music, which had grown frightfully stagnant during the 1980s; the decade of excess was dominated by the over-the-top shredding of the Van Halens, Malmsteens and Satrianis of the world. Moore and Ranaldo were the antithesis of the traditional guitar hero archetype which rose to prevalence in the 1970s and reached critical mass during the 1980s. Daydream Nation is a deconstruction from within of the guitar rock format; most of the songs do indeed “rock” and tend to follow a skewed version of pop song structure, but at the same time they sound utterly alien thanks to Moore and Ranaldo’s tirelessly innovative approach to the instrument.

The album is jam-packed with interesting textures, tones, drones, and dissonance that would echo through the next two and a half decades of recorded music. I’ve heard Daydream Nation’s influence time and time again over the years; it’s everywhere you listen, from metal bands as diverse as Xasthur and The Dillinger Escape Plan, all the way to indie rock darlings like Deerhoof. One can’t help but wonder if even the off-kilter hip hop sounds of artists like El-P were informed by Sonic Youth’s six-string abstractions.

What might be the most compelling aspect of Sonic Youth’s experimentation is that it never overshadows the songwriting. As fucked up as things get on a track like “Total Trash,” which at some points sounds like a guitar having sex in deep space with a kazoo, or the shrieking, psychedelic noise-dementia that is the solo section of “Candle,” it never degenerates into the overly pretentious (and generally talentless) anti-music that so many so-called “experimental” musicians crank out like heaps of useless scrap metal. Sonic Youth’s songs on Daydream Nation are always great songs first and foremost, sound experiments second; it probably goes without saying that this is what ultimately sets the band apart and makes them so influential. I’ve said elsewhere that you can innovate all you want, but at the end of the day no one’s going to give a shit about you if you don’t have the songs. Daydream Nation is a perfect example of this. The band pushes the envelope and at the same time retains a level of craftsmanship that is quite frankly off the fucking charts.

It’s difficult to prevent Moore and Ranaldo’s performances from dominating any analysis of Daydream Nation, but one mustn’t neglect the importance of vocalist/bassist Kim Gordon and drummer Steve Shelley. Gordon’s vocal turns are seductive, but are also far more aggressive-sounding than those of Moore and Ranaldo. She also has many of the album’s darkest lyrical moments, such as “I wanted to know the exact dimensions of Hell / Does this sound simple? / Fuck you! Are you for sale? / Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?” from “The Sprawl.” Most would expect the sole female in the band to bring something softer or prettier to the table amidst the noise, but Gordon does the exact opposite, deconstructing another convention of rock ‘n’ roll by presenting herself as an aggressive feminine force within a male-dominated band. It may sound cliché, but Shelley’s drumming truly is the bedrock upon which Daydream Nation is built, the foundation for Moore and Ranaldo’s sonic architecture. More than anyone else in the band, Shelley grounds Sonic Youth’s approach in rock ‘n’ roll, reining in even the album’s gnarliest guitar freakouts. The guy is probably one of the most solid, tasteful drummers in rock and that’s exactly what a band like Sonic Youth needs to bring stability and structure to the six-string tempest.

Sonic Youth would go on to refine their sound even further with subsequent albums such as Dirty and The Washing Machine, never quite achieving the commercial success of many of the bands they influenced. As is often the case in the music industry, the band that’s considered ahead of their time is hardly ever the one to reap the benefits. Some might argue that Sonic Youth found their sound a few years too early, but I would argue that we would never have seen the deluge of exceptional music that was the 1990s alternative rock movement if they hadn’t. Perhaps Lee Ranaldo says it best in the lyrics of “Eric’s Trip:” “I breathe in the myth / I’m over the city, fucking the future.”

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