The Eternal – Sonic Youth

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As the streets of Brooklyn flood with the rent-raising gentry and another Whole Foods springs up blocks from the Eldridge Street railroad apartment where recent newlyweds Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon spent their hot summer days of 1988 alongside junky casualties of the crack epidemic, the conditions under which Sonic Youth birthed Daydream Nation are largely lost to history. It was their last New York album, their ode to a city decaying in a blind heat. Lee Ranaldo says in the liner notes of this deluxe re-release that “the bands we were into [at the time] were all American and they really sounded that way.” After the Daydream Japanese tour, openers Boredoms turned the band on to a more global noise scene, but it's the summer of 1988, and the members of Sonic Youth, mired in the hot city, have yet to quit their day jobs.

With dogged staying power, SY has failed to fade from relevance over most of its 25 odd years. Their long meandering criss-cross through the Sonic pastures they staked (somewhere between noise and pop) from their earliest allegiance to Glenn Branca have sometimes been coded as two separate Youths, the SYR releases during the 90s typifying their experimental penchant for noise while releases like Murray Street and Rather Ripped have been tailored to their tight-fitting populist Cool. Indeed, last year's Rather Ripped was a pleasant laurel-resting point for the band, perhaps its most cohesively pop-structured conglomeration to date. Reissues have also taken a significant position in SY’s ongoing release parade, The Destroyed Room B-Sides and rarities collection most recently dusting the attic of their junk, worth its weight in gold to the faithful. Likewise, the reissues of the sludgy romp through their grungy early 90s sound, 1990's Goo and 1992’s Dirty , were repackaged in 2005 and 2004 respectively.

All this fanfare was a sort of royal procession trumpeting the emperor’s arrival for a new generation of fans who, adequately warned, ought to be prepared for the bands finest self-summation. The Daydream Nation deluxe edition comes timed with the summer’s globe-spanning live performances of the album, which ought to secure the collection’s pedestal in the pantheon of rock, if not popular music at large. More importantly than its consideration as a track list, Sonic Youth positions the songs within Daydream Nation as a body of art transcendent of the package in which it was initially bought and sold.

So the band will coax a grander legacy and we will fawn over their entreaties. But back to 1988. The oft-ignored lyrical content of Daydream gives a hint of their minds at the time. Their obsession with the here and now, mixed with the apocalyptic vision of urban decay, formed a kind of lyrical bedrock of energy and aggression and simultaneously, paralysis. Ranaldo and Thurston Moore’s vocals reflect the passivity in this posturing, their antipathetic delivery and limited vocal ranges venting “why try” , where Gordon is at her most hot and bothered: “I'm trying for the future / it's funny that way / I wanna know!” Ranaldo's sentiments on “Eric's Trip” (“Hatred / I hate the past”) and later, “Hey Joni” (“Forget the future, these times are such a mess / Tune out the past and just say yes”) and Moore's on “Candle” (“I can't wait / I can't stay, a candle / Gotta change my mind before it burns out”) teeter on the precipice between an ecstatic peace in the present and an inexorable pressure to create something meaningful before it’s too late and the rioting candle of youth is burned on both ends. Later on in “Rain King”, Ranaldo again utters a dread fear for his worth: “It feels like years and all I've done is fought / And not turned up, anything”.

Moore goes farthest in detailing the city around which Daydream grew. On the city streets: “See flashing eyes / They're flashing 'cross to me / Burnin' up the sky /Sunshining into me / Your locust crown / Cop-killin' heartbeat / Head's lookin' down / Bowin' out, to the street.” And he's obliquely political about the epidemic: “It's a guilty man / That increased the crack / It's total trash / Sack 'em on the back / With a heavy rock.” But the most vivid portrayal of the daily joy and fear of the city comes out in his classic wander from his Lower East Side home:

Falling out of sleep, I hit the floor
Put 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 lizard

All comin' from hu-man imagination
Day dreaming days in a daydream nation

Smashed-up against a car at three A.M.
Kids just up for basketball, beat me in my head
There's bum trash in my hall and my place is ripped
I've totaled another amp, I'm calling in sick

It's an anthem in a vacuum on a hyperstation
Day dreaming days in a daydream nation

While Daydream's preceding album Sister was well into the band’s long warm journey into accessibility, (a concept that was only a glimmer in EVOL’s messy, blood-shot eye), Daydream went a step further in synthesizing that once novel divide between noise and pop. It was in some ways more of a conceptual step than a cleanly executed mission. As Lee Ranaldo puts it in the liner notes, “while it has its own sophistication on a structural level, the playing is pretty crude.”

Because of the fluidity between Sonic Youth’s songwriting process and its live-performed product, the band’s live tracks shed light on the songs' ongoing fluidity within the set structures established on the album and their ability to slip quickly back into full-on noise. There's the weird Lou Reed-inflected Kim Gordon vocals, sped up and hiked up an octave on “Eric's Store.” Or the de-chorused heavy distortion guitar intro on “'Cross The Breeze” that sounds as if it's got an extra detuned string included for half-step dissonance. “Eric's Trip” displays a violent immediacy and aggressive atonality that couldn't exist in the safe isolation of a studio. These differences are pretty frequent, reassuring those among us who value the authenticity of freedom in noise that for Sonic Youth, experimentation was not simply a pre-manufactured smoke-screen of practiced guitar tricks, nor an aural conceit carefully crafted to appear more wild than it was. Most every live track informs this freedom with interludes and preludes that manipulate the fabric of what we've grown so comfortable knowing in the 19 years since the songs were first branded into the indie landscape. As always with live collections, there are tracks that fail to carry weight or interest against the studio original. This is the case with the frail version of “The Wonder” recorded at CBGB's in 1988. Still, Moore's mafioso snarl “this city is a wonduh towuhn” allows a little warmth into the generally stone-cold body of work.

SY has reissued its masterpiece. Will they continue to play the media game, timing release and performances for maximum exposure, reminding us of their relevance in regular installments, all while releasing safely gorgeous and introspective albums? The 2006 distribution deal Moore struck with Universal Records for Ecstatic Peace, his own label (one as old as Sonic Youth), signs bands in the image of those who inspired him as a young man as well as those that take after him. Also, the resurfacing of Bark Haze as one of Moore’s curated bands at ATP is another harkening back to his formative years. His increasing attention to the past might disappoint those hard-line fans who await a new wave of innovation from their idols, but those stubbornly watching the horizon will miss the miles of empty space left to develop and exploit by the band that first claimed such wide boundaries of experimental rock.