Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”

Album cover for Daydream Nation

This week, I’ve been listening to Sonic Youth’s double-LP “Daydream Nation” from 1988. The band formed in 1981, creating no-wave noise rock. No-wave describes a movement that started in the late-70s. These musicians were inspired by elements of punk-rock but rejected its musically-conservative nature. Punk promised rebellion by creating something new rejecting what they saw as commercial music out of touch with reality. Most punk did so by making a return to the song-writing of early rock of the 1950s. This meant following long established song-structures and chord-progressions. No-wave intentionally avoided these norms like Ornette Coleman did with free-jazz. Sonic Youth developed their sound and style from these no-wave roots. By “Daydream Nation,” they combined the experimental sound with somewhat more traditional song-structures.

I first heard Sonic Youth when a friend lent my their 1990 album “Goo” in 1994. It took me a few listens to get into it and then I loved it.

Teenage Riot

The album opens strong with “Teenage Riot.” This 7 minute track consists of an 79 second long intro of a single clean electric guitar playing a series of two simple chords slowly. Female vocalist Kim Gordon speaks in a blasé manner, recording twice and panned hard left-hard-right. The words give new meaning to teenage poetry: “You’re it; no, you’re it;hey, you’re really it; you’re it;no I mean it, you’re it;say it,don’t spray it.” As with much of Sonic Youth’s vocals, they give us passionate rebellion with a disconnected cool like Andy Warhol in sunglasses. They’re cultivate an impression of being uncultivated. By elevating the mundane emptiness of self-conscious youth culture, they creating art out of the superficial and question the sublime. Its quite clear throughout this album that they appreciate the Velvet Underground and carry on many of those traditions.

Like the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth songs frequently evolve into a driving mechanical rhythm. With guitarists strumming continuous hard beats, with the movement happening more on the fretboard. They build up rock rhythms on during the first couple bars, then rise up to higher notes. This repeats, dropping back down. It gives the impression of a rock n roll machine.

Sonic Youth are not afraid of alternate tunings; Or rather, they depend upon them. The main guitar on this song is tuned to what has become known as the “Teenage Riot” tuning (GABDEG). The other guitar uses a bizarre tuning with four of the strings all tuned to a G note and the other two tuned to a D (GGDDGG). Tunings like these can lead to creating new patterns and combinations of notes, as they break a musician from established habits of playing. Guitar strings tuned far from standard tuning vibrate differently and resonate with each other different. This creates new sonic territory for the instrument.

Thurston Moore delivers the vocals throughout the rest of the song. The verses follow an ABAB rhyme scheme. The first and third lines use particularly loose slant rhymes like “location/rockin'” and “weather/temper.” The second and fourth lines, stick to strict rhymes like “true/two”, “you/clue”, “you/do” that all rhyme with each. An interesting technique with the “you/do” is that the “do” is not the end of the line; the line is sung with extending the word “you” to allow it to rhyme while following up with “me for now.” Lyrically, this is a song about adolescent turmoil, meaninglessness and the savior rock n roll.

Looking for a ride to your secret location
Where the kids are setting up a free-speed nation for you
Got a foghorn and a drum and a hammer that’s rockin’
And a cord and a pedal and a lock, that’ll do me for now

The Sprawl

The third track, “The Sprawl” takes the driving rhythm of “teenage riot” and melts it into a rock n roll drone. Bass and guitars harmonically blend into a numbing hum. Gordon speaks, “To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips, I’ve gone native. I wanted to know the exact dimensions of hell. Does this sound simple? Fuck you!” She’s dawned the costume of society’s female to learn and expose it as a facade. The lyrics continue into a condemnation of consumerism and societal expectations. The rhyming chorus succinctly provides the message as a catchy slogan, like a marketing jingle. The repetition here makes it memorable, but also suits the message.

Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more
Come on down to the store
You can buy some more and more and more and more

Rain King

What I really like about this album is that it provides an atmosphere of rock n roll attitude. Through their evoluation from late 70s no-wave, combined with Warholian laissez-faire, they’ve precipitated 90s slacker subculture. Often mischaracterized as not-caring, the more philosophical side of slacker was concerned with dismantling meaningless constructs of society. They were frequently educated: some college, or college-preparatory high school, or self-taught through literature. They felt pressures from society regarding how they should make decisions about school, career, fashion, friends, music, etc, and they asked “why?” They explored these expectations and found it was a mess of self-perpetuating materialistic consumerist boondoggle.

The heart of Slacker culture was not laziness. It seemed to be a bunch of kids who didn’t care because they had chosen to disregard what the old men cared about. It was a mass existential crisis, a new Beatnik revolution attempting to create something good out of a discovery of inanity.

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