The opening chords of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation lurch, dissipate and echo as if reaching through the murk of the '80s underground, searching for that vein of emotional and sociopolitical gold that ran through the rough of cocaine-fueled hyper-gloss. Sonic Youth, having honed their craft from a messy, highly experimental yet tame no-wave sound into something unique and formidable with previous albums EVOL and Sister, were on the precipice of launching themselves to the top of the budding indie rock heap. In Kim Gordon's drifting prologue, the band at last sees the path to glory, and they break through to it with as much majesty as rock 'n roll has ever contained.
When the riff for "Teen Age Riot" flies out of the speaker as soon as Gordon's prose fades, you know the band has crossed a threshold. An anthem worthy of placement with "Like a Rolling Stone," "Born to Run" and "My Generation," "Teen Age Riot" manages to cement the noise side of the band after it developed over the last two albums even as the group blended it with their first dose of pure, unadulterated pop. Unlike those aforementioned odes to defiance, "Teen Age Riot" is not a call to arms, instead capturing the feelings of youth in all their ennui. By not presenting adolescence as an "us vs. them" struggle with the outside forces of the establishment and elders but a tug-of-war within teenagers' own ranks for a sense of clarity, "Teen Age Riot" achieves the purity of an anthem with the complexity of a more realized composition.
From there, Daydream Nation combines the heightened songwriting ability the band displayed on their previous two albums with their propensity for elongating tunes into noise jams in a live setting. Songs easily stretch past the six- and seven-minute marks, elongating the band's most developed pop hooks into its most successful art-noise jams yet. "Cross the Breeze" opens with jangling, blissful chords before morphing into a fast-paced freak-fest that might pass for a thrash metal song. When Kim Gordon, at her most intensely stand-offish, enters the mix several minutes in, she leads the Youth through a song too long and disoriented to be considered punk but so righteous and furious that it's impossible to view it as anything but. "The Sprawl" is even looser, propelled by a tight beat that pits the band against each other as if in a battle royale. Both songs shouldn't stay together; you expect them to take off in a thousand different directions, either in reckless abandon or mathematical precision. Instead, the group always finds their way, always keeps the beat and always finds just the right balance between considerable ability and free-form, emotional playing.
When the lengths of the songs are tighter, as they are on "Silver Rocket" and most of the second LP, Sonic Youth attains a ferocity they occasionally displayed but never fully developed. The echoing clang of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore's guitars, the buzz and hum of Gordon's bass and the carefully modulated sloppiness of Steve Shelley form a white-hot focal point on the shorter numbers, melting through whatever surface they touch. The raucous "Kissability" shows off Gordon's dry wit, while the three-part finale pays homage to the band that pointed the way for Sonic Youth's growth into the ultimate teen band, Dinosaur Jr.
Daydream Nation, despite being released the year before I was born, always sends me back to visions of high school, slamming lockers and idly doodling in binders. Like all teenagers, Daydream Nation mumbles, moves around uncertainly and self-consciously. But it also has the bravado of youth, the brash confidence of its crashing punk sound. Beneath it all, though, is the sincerity that marks the best of adolescence: we may not have a damn clue how the world works, but we mean well and want to change things for the better. And that's a damn sight more appealing than selling out for greater popularity and wealth (right Boomers?).
I actually have less to say about Daydream Nation than other Youth albums, such as Sister or the magnificent late-career masterpiece Murray Street. But the simplicity is what I most admire about the album. On its surface, it's just a blend of songwriting hooks and post-Krautrock electronic wash, but that doesn't get at its appeal. After all, Krautrock itself was, in the best cases, a mixture of pop hooks and sonic wash. What makes Daydream Nation so transcendent of time is the subtle, almost indescribable manner in which the band marries that sound to an undercurrent of shared emotion. Nearly everyone can relate to the feeling expressed by the record, even though the lyrics themselves border on nonsense (or, given how rarely anything approaches logic in the words, perhaps it's more accurate to say they border on sense).
One of the few enduring classics of the 1980s, Daydream Nation is all the proof one would ever need of Sonic Youth's greatness. Fortunately, they decided to pad their resumé with at least three or four other classics, just in case. Dinosaur Jr. inspired Sonic Youth with their seminal You're Living All Over Me, but Moore, Gordon and co. replaced J. Mascis' sludge with a sort of industrial twang; yes, there is a hint of country sorrow under the punk and no-wave influences, and maybe that's the aspect that makes Daydream Nation so gripping. That trace of a genre built upon self-pity, however justified, fits seamlessly with the crafting of the ultimate teenage anthem. It took numerous listens to glean that from the record, to hear in the echo of ringing guitars the sound of outlaws. Most of the country rebels weren't really that dangerous, and they peddled an angst not too dissimilar from the sort that alt.rockers sell. The only difference is that country aims years down the road, once the doubt of youth reveals itself to be a correct foreshadowing of a broken life. Because that sound, whether the band intended it or not, moves through the cascading mix of sounds and moods, Daydream Nation not only survives for each new generation of teenagers, it can be equally affecting as one moves out of that age range. It's as forward-thinking as it is nostalgic. Not bad for an album that contains the lines "To the extent that I wear skirts/and cheap nylon slips/I've gone native/I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell."