#328: Sonic Youth, "Daydream Nation" (1988)

There’s a kind of magic in New York City. You walk out of your door on an ordinary day, you go about your business and perhaps, on your commute, at a meeting, at a dinner or party that you tried your hardest to get out of, you make a connection. The degrees of separation are thin. Down corridors and around corners, doors open magically, often ones you didn’t realize you needed to enter. I like to think of these as serendipitous—they always lead to something, even if it’s not what you were expecting.

Sonic Youth’s “Hyperstation”—“Falling outta sleep I hit the floor / I pull on some rock tee and I’m out with the door / From Bowery to Broome to Greene / I’m a walking lizard / Last night’s dream was a talking baby wizard / All coming from female imagination / Daydreaming days in a daydream nationIt’s an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation / Daydreaming days in a daydream nation”—sounds like a New York City summer. I imagine that the summer of 1988 must have felt endless, especially if you were just a couple of months away from opening the door to Daydream Nation—one of the most revered albums of all time, one that would join the Library of Congress Archive of Culturally Significant American Recordings, and one that would wind up on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Daydream Nation was born on October 18, 1988. In the months leading up to the release, the band recorded at NYC’s Greene St. Recording—known primarily at the time for pumping out hip-hop records. The engineer, Nick Sansano, worked with groups like Public Enemy on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, released in June of 1988, and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock on “It Takes Two.” On the surface, band and engineer didn’t have much in common musically. Perhaps the common denominator was an understanding of the power of noise.

Rob Base, and DJ E-Z Rock—may he rest in peace—came from Harlem, as did I. “It Takes Two” (from the album of the same name, which dropped in August 1988) was fiery. The song takes me back to creating dance routines with my best friend after school in her parents’ living room. This is a song you heard blasting from Suzuki Jeeps on 125th Street o­n a hot Saturday afternoon, when the thing to do was to walk up and down the avenues to see who was who and what was what. The other song from that album that really moved me was “Joy and Pain.” I don’t know if I was aware of it then, but it encapsulated the complexity of life in four lines: “Joy and pain / Like sunshine and rain.” I was too young to understand the true sentiment, just old enough to recognize the basic tenets—you don’t always get what you want, life isn’t fair, but sometimes it’s beautiful. That undercurrent took it from party song to classic.

Daydream Nation shares this timelessness. It might have been made in the summer of 1988, but it never feels dated or old. Widely considered Sonic Youth’s magnum opus, it was their last record on an indie label before they got their first major label deal—it got them their deal. Digging into their catalogue, the unexpected is the norm. Take their side project with Mike Watt, as Ciccone Youth. “Get in the Groovey,” which riffs on Madonna’s “Into the Groove” is so tongue-in-cheek. It underscored how they made the jump to the sound of “Teenage Riot,” their first “mainstream” hit, which really wasn’t that mainstream after all. It was another way of looking at themselves, at their sound. It set them apart because it seemed so different from what they were already creating, but maybe it was who they were all along. Describing the image of the single candle used as Daydream Nation’s cover art to Rolling Stone, Kim Gordon said, “We wanted to use something that was outwardly conservative looking, just because people wouldn’t expect that. The most radical things outwardly look very conservative.”

How do you make a classic? How do you design an album that captures a mood, a time, a moment, so strongly that it becomes home? How do you create an endless summer or the coldest winter ever? I think Sonic Youth wound up breaking new ground because they weren’t trying to—they were simply open to change. Their attempt to capture the magic of their improv sessions led to the impressive length of the album. The chords layer so instinctively that it’s hard to distinguish where one track ends and the next begins. It’s uncertain, like one of those magic days in NYC where you never know who you’ll run into, or what you’ll get into—all that’s certain is heady, delicious anticipation. There’s a sense of urgency to hold on to the moment, knowing letting go is inevitable, like in “Cross the Breeze,” when Gordon sings: “Let’s go walking on the water / Come all the way please / I wanna know / Should I stay or go? / No need to be scared / Let’s jump into the day / I wanna know / I think I oughta go / Close your eyes and make believe / You can do whatever you please / I wanna know / I think I better go.”

Even after a double album’s worth of songs, the end comes quickly. It feels just like a city summer—hot up in Harlem, crazy down in the village—every summer that is important, monumental, where something is at stake, even if that is just finding a way to make it unforgettable.

—Lee Erica Elder