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Looking back at Sonic Youth’s illuminating Daydream Nation

@TomTaylorFO

There are certain albums that barely seem to have been written, like some essential checkpoint that you couldn’t imagine the fate of cultural history without, they seem to simply emerge from the ether. Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is one of those albums.

If you have never heard the record before, which is unlikely in of itself considering you’re reading a classic review of it, then you will, nevertheless, have seen its iconic image and heard its transcendent reverberations in the unfurling permutations of music that it has influenced. David Bowie once said, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming,” and that’s a key reason why he dubbed Sonic Youth the most important band of the 1980s. 

In an era where quick pop hits fit for the booming new MTV medium were all the rage, Daydream Nation marked itself as an outlier even before it had been heard. When press releases touted it as a whopping 70-minute onslaught, eyebrows were sent rocketing into orbit. No doubt many R&R folks followed their surprise soon after by muttering: ‘What’s the point in that?’ It was an era whereby if something couldn’t be said in five inoffensive minutes then it wasn’t worth saying at all. Daydream Nation stands as a lecture against that notion, and it opened up an alternative way forward.

Sonic Youth had been no strangers in dealing with the discursive side of things, their live shows would often drift into long improvised jams. Reflecting this on record had always proved difficult owing to the perceived parameters of what an album had to be. Many fans of the band often argued that their albums had not been a true representation of the tenets of the band. In short, their LPs had been great, but their recorded output and their live shows were two separate entities. Daydream Nation saw them tie the two together with glorious results.

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In the process, this sprawling epic became a defining album by proxy of the album itself defining an era in turn. The rolling swathe of sound tackles themes like the ensuing crack epidemic in the States at the time, the commercial flood of the rapidly changing music industry, the unceasing march of concrete, and in a meta sense it even touched on the rise of hip hop with Nick Sansano, who had previously worked with the likes of Public Enemy, acting as a sound engineer. Even the avant-garde approach to the music seemed to recall the New York of old mirroring fellow beat subterranean denizens The Velvet Underground.

Now, the record stands out as a lesson for future bands that influence can only really be achieved when you approach your work in a complete uncompromised fashion without any cynicism in the mix. The band were obviously aware of the threats that an over-long record in a soundbite era prefaced, but they disavowed them to such an extent that they even through the kitchen sink at the production of the album itself, shifting out $30,000 for a lengthy studio stint to record it. 

With this unhinged drive behind it, Daydream Nation proved expansive in every way as it piped the underground into bedrooms the world over, lashing a rollicking wave of dirty sound, dangerous delivery and a demimonde-based diatribe against society into our dismal daily lives. In an otherwise gaudy era, the album proved that unpolished darkness can prove paradoxically more illuminating by way of reflection. As one of the most essential albums of the 1980s this energetic enlightenment shone on a huge slew of the sonic reverberations that followed which is perhaps why it fulfils this weird checkpoint status in history – you can’t imagine a world without it.