While a lot of music criticism is not much better than a heated, tossed-off comment by a fictional character who sometimes attempts to have grown-up conversations while speaking into plastic cheeseburgers, I submit to you that Juno may have been hasty in her declaration that Sonic Youth is “just noise.” I also submit to you that there is no way that a Nirvana-loving, thirty-something hipster doesn’t know who Mott the Hoople was or how they had a huge impact on the hopes and dreams of one Mick Jones.
All that’s not to say that everyone will or should love Sonic Youth. Because, while they’re not “just noise,” they are often “a lot of noise.” It just so happens that I like a lot of noise, with a dash of melody and a hook that sneaks up on you and slaps you on the back “with a heavy rock,” to quote “Total Trash” from Sonic Youth’s 1988 masterpiece Daydream Nation.
See, you might fool someone into thinking Sonic Youth is for them by playing Rather Ripped or Nurse, but Daydream Nation is the test. It has all the melody and noise and squally guitar jams and the long songs and the weird titles and Kim Gordon yelling fake orgasms. It’s the album you play to test someone’s Sonic Youth mettle, not because it’s hard to listen to but because it has the most buried treasure of any Sonic Youth release. It’s hard to get passed “Teenage Riot” as an amazing opening song, but each successive listen reveals more to love on the other tracks. Daydream Nation is the album for people who are really ready to sit and listen, start to finish, to a Sonic Youth record.
I bet it’s a great bullshit detector too. Try this at your next party – find the biggest hipster/poser in the room and go name-drop Daydream Nation near them. They’ll probably nod and say something safe like, “Yeah, that’s a cool album.” That’s your cue to crank the album up at top volume.
Party (probably) over.
If I sound like I like Daydream Nation because almost nobody else would like it, let me be clear: that’s not the case (and, in fact, plenty of people like this album, many of whom I disagree with about almost everything else). If I was going to do that, I’d be talking up Sonic Youth’s Goo album or Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, an album I dearly love but which (I’m making a bet now) everyone else I know will hate with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I’ve always liked noisy, kind of ugly music not because of some bullshit contrarian philosophy but because, on some level, really noisy stuff appeals to me. It captures life’s true chaos in a compelling sort of way. This is why I liked the Titus Andronicus record more than everyone else I know.
And one of my all time favorite noisy albums, among my favorite albums ever is Daydream Nation. Under all the noise, it’s an indie-pop album, and the guitar playing is fucking amazing, from “Teenage Riot” right on through “Eliminator Jr”. And what’s not to like about Kim Gordon’s “Does ‘fuck you’ sound simple enough?” on “The Sprawl”? Yeah, five of the fourteen tracks are at or near the seven-minute mark, allowing for a lot of weird noise, that bane of the knocked-up fictional teenager. But Sonic Youth is really the only band I forgive for going beyond about five minutes (unless it’s on maybe one song every two or three albums) in any song and that’s because their songs need time to spread out; sometimes they pull you in with the hook (as on “Total Trash,” which has one of the most indelible guitar lines of all time) and then wander away from it, only to bring it back later and other times, they bury the melody back further in the song, letting it bubble up to the surface when it’s good and ready.
Is it prog-punk? Is it pretentious indie gobbledigook? Is it just rock ‘n’ roll, evolved into some sort of crazed, J. Mascis-worshipping (Thurston Moore has copped to “Teenage Riot” being an imagining of the Dinosaur Jr. frontman – and Rain Man of the guitar – as President of an alternate universe) beast? Who knows? Who cares? Daydream Nation is a hard album to describe – you have to give it a day in court and actually listen to it. If it pisses you off (and it will piss off a lot of people), well, then, it pisses you off. Try Juno’s precioius Moldy Peaches (but I’m warning you – other than that slightly heart-warming tune from Juno, they suck. They suck bad, they seem kinda proud of sucking, and they want you to pay them for it. So fuck them) or something else entirely. But, if you wade into the admittedly noisy waters of Daydream Nation, you may find, as I have, that rather than being “just noise,” Sonic Youth is Noise Plus: noise plus awesome guitars, noise plus the anthemic sounds of “Teenage Riot” and “Kissability,” which leads us to Sonic Youth being noise plus one of the most awesome female performers in all of rock ever, Ms. Kim Gordon. If you liked the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs record, maybe send a thank-you note to Kim Gordon. ‘Cause she sang like that first. “Kissability,” and “The Sprawl” are but two great entries in the Kim Gordon canon, along with Nurse’s “Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream,” Gordon’s masterful fuck-you to Mariah Carey. (I am adamant that there was a name-change at some point, becuase when Nurse first came out, I recall this song being listed as “Mariah Carey and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream”)
If you asked me what’s so great about Sonic Youth, I would put Daydream Nation on for you and let you decide for yourself (Note: no one has ever asked me “Matt, what’s so great about Sonic Youth?” and don’t expect they ever will, but one can always dream). Now, there are those people out there (whose opinions can often be found on websites whose names rhyme with “snitch pork”) who will turn their nose right up at you should you not immediately be blown away by Sonic Youth’s awesomeness. They will have a similar reaction if you say you don’t see what’s so great about Radiohead (or if you suggest that not everything Radiohead does is a complete reinvention of the human ability to perceive sound). In both cases, you can’t blame the bands for fans like that. Sonic Youth is an amazing, noisy band and Daydream Nation is an amazing, noisy record. You don’t have to like either, and when you post the 29 best albums released in your lifetime on your little blog that between 2 and 6 people (on average) read, I won’t feel the least bit cheated to find Daydream Nation absent from the list. You wanna go get a beer?