By the time Sonic Youth recorded Daydream Nation in 1988, they had shed the art-damage preciousness of their earlier, if gimmicky, songwriting (a band with as many weird guitar tunings as songs is gimmicky, after all) for run-on jams that would take more compelling shape on cross-country tours. Earlier Youth albums satisfyingly managed to sound both meditative and anxious; Daydream Nation sounds like a band playing too many bills sandwiched between dawn-of-grunge post-punks and hardcore bands.
Compare the visceral beauty of earlier songs such as EVOL's "Tom Violence" or the earnest melodic hues of Sister's "Cotton Crown" and "Schizophrenia"—the latter a song so straightforwardly great but Youth-trademark wistful, Radiohead could cover it now—and Daydream Nation sounds like a bunch of punked-up, odd-tuning doodles spread out over a double album. Double Nickels On the Dime it wasn't—not even Zen Arcade.
And now, as a triple album with a bonus disc of live cuts and covers, it's no Sandinista! either.
"Teenage Riot" is that kind of overreaching voice-of-their-generation stuff the Youth have thankfully outgrown, framed by the signature spindly, chiming guitar overtones that can riff a hook begrudgingly without being hooky. The Thurston Moore punk-epic stuff is balanced by the Lee Ranaldo lemme-tell-you-'bout-my-friend noise jags "Eric's Trip" and "Hey Joni." Ironically, it's a moving solo demo of Ranaldo singing "Eric's Trip" (included here as a bonus) that shows Daydream's indulgence: frustrated songwriting and their live jones occasioning noisier, faster songs when they don't need to be.
Though Daydream's songs would catch fire live, as the bonus concert cuts here shows, the album proper lapses into a kind of narcotized My Bloody Valentine haze. And when it doesn't, we get the drone-by-numbers "Total Trash" or the wannabe-hardcore of "Silver Rocket."
Ironically, it's the bonus covers that shed light on Daydream Nation's shortcomings. A version of the Beatles' "Within You Without You" sounds like the Youth of old, more arty psychedelic, less try-too-hard rawk, while a cover of Mudhoney's "Touch Me I'm Sick" is just the latter.
Daydream Nation may have been the work of a great band, but it still feels like a movie set in New York that was filmed in Toronto. The landmarks are there, but the menace isn't as meditative or as anxious.
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment