Sonic Youth's 'Daydream Nation': Source Material
by Seth Colter Walls | March 5, 2013
Most Sonic Youth devotees have a particular romance with the year 1988. For hardcore believers in the group's early, No Wave-influenced aesthetic, that year represents perhaps the last time they could say they truly loved Thurston, Kim, Lee and Steve. For those undaunted fans who saw the band through their 1990s major-label heyday, '88 is to be celebrated as the point where the quartet started getting consistently serious about melody and songcraft.
And just about anyone who cottons to any school of indie rock can agree on Daydream Nation -- including the cool kids at the Library of Congress, who selected the album as a permanent part of their preservation library in 2005.
As befits a turning point in a major band's catalog, there are a host of influences at work on the album. "Z) Eliminator Jr." was titled in honor of both Sonic Youth's sometime SST labelmates Dinosaur Jr. and mainstream blues-rockers ZZ Top; the latter's Eliminator-era boogie is partly aped on the initial riffing theme of "Eliminator." "Hey Joni" was titled as a shout-out to Joni Mitchell, who, at her most experimental (as on the album The Hissing of Summer Lawns), foreshadowed to some of Daydream's droning-but-tuneful stompers.
But, as the chiming guitar figures that open "Teen Age Riot" make clear, Sonic Youth weren't ditching their roots in the world of alternate-guitar-tuning avant-rock, which Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore both learned as part of Glenn Branca's early bands. (Ranaldo is even one of the musicians on Branca's "Structure," from 1981, which contains the sound of S.Y.'s language being born.) And there's just the barest residual hint of the scrape-and-yelp chaos created by early influences like DNA on the squalling, whammy-bar noise-guitar layers of "Eric's Trip."
Yet whereas earlier albums like Sister and EVOL show Sonic Youth as willing to abandon a melody for good in the pursuit of what the band called "screaming fields of sonic noise," on Daydream Nation, the underlying pulse of each song usually takes care to re-assert itself, no matter what interruption may come. There are hints of greater complexity, too, in the writing of the band's guitar parts. It's slightly ahistorical to compare the minimalist classical composer Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" to anything on Daydream Nation, since Reich's piece wouldn't come out on a record until 1989. But the members of Sonic Youth were surely aware of Reich's piece for amplified instruments by 1987, when "Electric Counterpoint" was composed and premiered locally in downtown New York.
Meantime, the originality of the guitar arpeggios in "Candle" proved a step forward for Sonic Youth, toward an engagement with modern classical textures that would only deepen in later years -- perhaps reaching their apogee on the closing section of Murray St.'s "Rain on Tin." (The band would cover Reich's "Pendulum Music" on their 1999 release Goodbye 20th Century.)
"Candle" also features the lyric "Tonight's the day," which reads fairly easily as a tweaked reference to Tonight's the Night by Neil Young -- an artist that several members of Sonic Youth will talk about at length, if given the chance. Though that famously broody 1975 Young album has a traditional bluesy cast to it that doesn't quite square with the harmonies on Daydream Nation, Ol' Shakey's influence can be detected.
Consider the kooky (though oft-forgotten) soundtrack to Young's concert/road film Journey Through the Past, in which snatches of deep-in-the-distance piano riffs and found-sound collages from the film were dumped directly onto the LP. The hushed, abstract intimacy of a Journey track like "Soldier" anticipates the piano-plus-answering-machine oddity of "Providence," which serves as a palate cleanser on Daydream Nation. And though it would be another 20 years or so before drummer Steve Shelley would fill in as a member of German rock outfit Neu!, you can hear the motorik influence in his grooves on "B) Hyperstation."
Are you keeping score? Dinosaur Jr. ZZ Top. Glenn Branca and other downtown N.Y.C. new-classical gods. Joni Mitchell. Neil Young. All that's left is to add a sprinkle of Kim Gordon vocal influences -- Lydia Lunch, for example -- and you've got a grand summation of Sonic Youth's (and thus indie rock's) apex. Enjoy.