I don’t think any other album so easily captures the entirety of the decade that preceded it (note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think Daydream Nation is the best album of the 80’s, but it just so happens that it is).
“Teenage Riot” is the perfect marriage between melody and the Sonic Youth aesthetic that they’ve been developing until now; a step above “Schizophrenia,” which was already a huge improvement on the previous “Tom Violence.” Remember the days when they were only a humble Glenn Branca band of followers who couldn’t sing to save their lives? Well, those days are over. “Silver Rocket” uses the same blueprint from “(I Got A) Catholic Block,” an adrenaline-infused riff with a chaotic noise breakdown in the middle that goes on for longer than they would have ever dared to before leading back to the original riff, complete with lyrics infused with the sexuality (“Ya ride the silver rocket […] Burning a hole in yr pocket”) that they’ve always been hinting at ever since they named themselves Sonic Youth. Oh, the thunderous drums on that track! Meanwhile, the abstract “Rain King” is honestly the first time Lee Ranaldo ever mattered. And even if you reject my sweeping declaration that this is the best album of the 80’s, I dare you to name a single, canonized album with a title as glorious as this one. I shudder to think they were a single step away from naming this Tonight’s the Day (yr better than Neil Young!).
Very simply, Daydream Nation is the cure to a phenomenon that I’ll call “urban claustrophobia.” I live in a house out in the suburbs (what my ex-girlfriend dubbed “the boonies” as a joke regarding the distance between us) and I work in the financial district of Toronto. I’ve heard the same complaint several times, that people who live in an area like mine and work in the same area as me never get the chance to meet people their age. I mean, barring striking up an office romance (which I have at one point…which ended surprisingly well, considering how everyone tells you not to shit where you eat), the pickings are slim but the thing is—they shouldn’t be. It’s practically an oxymoron isn’t it? The city is huge, so it shouldn’t be claustrophobic. But it somehow is, simply because we’re placed in boxes every step of the way. Your house. Your car. The subway. Your cubicle. And back to your house. And when it’s all said and done, you’re too exhausted to do anything else, so you sign onto your social media network to reach your daily quota of contact with the outside world. On the average day, I see around hundreds of people on the subway packt like sardines smack dab in uncomfortable rush hour. On the average day, I talk to none of them. Why? I’m not sure. I just immerse myself in the book I’ve read for the umpteenth time or my cell phone that’s always in my left pocket or my Ipod always in my right pocket, because I don’t want to be that weirdo who breaks personal bubbles on the subway by chatting with strangers (though I did meet my best friend from doing just that, but that’s a story for another day).
Other albums have spoken about this topic before. Most obviously, either of the first two Velvet Underground albums were about the same thing, especially considering Lou Reed’s social-commentary lyrics about the underbelly of New York City, both albums direct predecessors to Daydream Nation. “The Sprawl” has a chorus (“Come on down to the store / You can buy some more, more, more, more”) that doubles for both prostitution and consumerism, things that are meant to give us a temporary escape from that claustrophobia (temporarily, maybe…probably not in the long run), while she pretends to be a disgusting chauvinist of a male boss on “Kissability,” prepositioning women for sex with the pretense of career advancement, “Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me / You’re so soft, you make me hard / I’ll put you on a movie, don’t you want to / You could be a star, you could go far / You’ve got kissability.” Never before and never again has Kim Gordon been so viciously perfect (or is it perfectly vicious?). Listen, for example, to those moans that open “Eliminator Jr.” Elsewhere, there are her mantras,”The Sprawl”‘s “Fuck you! Are you for sale? / Does ‘Fuck you!’ sound simple enough?” and “‘Cross the Breeze”‘s “Let’s go, walkin’ on water / Now you think I’m Satan’s daughter.” The amazing thing is, both those lyrics are said only once in their respective songs. And they’re drilled in your head ever since.
It’s not just the lyrics though; it’s also seen in the noise, the very thing Sonic Youth have spent the past decade perfecting. Of course there are those who are glad to write off “Providence” as “new age crap” or “pretentious” or whatever else they can think off—they’re also the same people who try to tell you that “Fitter Happier” should’ve been cut off OK Computer, those savages. But it’s not, though I am a little baffled about how this of all things was released as a single. At its worst, it’s a lovely needed reprise from the barreling noise of the preceding seven tracks (not to mention the fact that they have an average track length of 7 minutes). At its near-worst, it only serves to demonstrate Sonic Youth’s sense of humour; the whole message really, left by Mike Watt, and especially his extremely American accent, “Thurston, your fuckin’ memory just goes out tha window.” You can practically hear the apostrophe. But note the music; it’s made of two parts, pretty piano that plays against the strangely pleasant windy backdrop produced by an overheated amp. And note when Mike Watt’s message ends. The piano cuts out too and all that you’re left with is the noise. Obviously, “Eliminator Jr.” ends the album with an ominous note, a stomping guitar crunch marching towards the inevitable nowhere. There is nothing else; just the feeling of complete isolation, despite being surrounded by people. Urban claustrophobia.
What’s the solution? It’s the music. It’s “Teenage Riot.” Aren’t you just sick of the silence at home, on the transit system, at work? “It’s getting kinda quiet in my city’s head?” Well, fuck that. Get the people together and throw a teenage riot “to get me out of bed right now.” God, don’t you just love the inflections Moore leaves on the last note to give the track Sonic Youth’s most melodic bend? “Everybody’s talkin’ bout the stormy weather / And what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?” And the way Kim Gordon’s mantra-laden intro (“You’re it.” “Spirit desire.” “We will fall.”) over both guitarists continue threaten to materialize into something more but never really does, instead being completely replaced when one of the best riffs ever comes crashing out of the gate? Glorious. It’s the music; it should be no surprise that the video for “Teenage Riot” features every musician that ever mattered (that’s hyperbolic). Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night” gets turned around in “Candle,” a song about windswept hair, which features an intro that you would never have suspected on such a heavy-hitting album. It’s the sound that I imagine nebulae make (that’s not hyperbolic). “The Wonder” opens with noises created from an extraterrestrial guitar before its urgent riff comes in and carries the song through. But everything disintegrates in its final moments, and all that’s left is Thurston’s melodic, “I’m just walkin’ around…the city is a wonder town.” The whole album is really just made for nighttime escapades in the heart of the city.
“You’re never gonna stop all the teenage leather and booze.”