I’m having fun working my way through Matthew Stearns’ (rather late!) book about Sonic Youth, for the series. Something of a monster record to write about, but he has a lot of fun with it. I hope you’ll have fun with the book, when it’s out early next year.
This is the closing section of Chapter 1.
Following is a not unlikely detailing of the circumstances under which first exposure to Sonic Youth typically happens: You’re up late on a summer night with some criminally dangerous older cousin (the cigarettes-weed-booze cousin); all parents, bloated with cocktails, have gone to bed. They’ve put you up in your cousin’s dank bedroom above the garage. Things have been pleasantly squalid so far; your cousin smokes menthols, while the two of you listen to album after album in an agreeable series of familiar titles. Then your cousin asks if you’ve ever heard _____________ by _____________. You sheepishly admit that you haven’t, and your cousin stares at you with sinister, mischievous eyes (they’re red and yellow, mustard on fire, the eyes of someone destined to spend time lurking around casinos and rehabs). Your cousin nods silently, reaches deep into the album stacks, pulls out a copy of some suspicious-looking record with a cover that makes you think of all the deflating disappointments, impossible longings, and bittersweet regrets you have yet to suffer in your life, and slides it onto the player…What comes out of the speakers is so foreign to your sensibilities that your mind, out of its depth of comprehension, lurches, jolts, and, finally, seizes. De-realization and vertigo set in as your music vocabulary struggles in vain to accommodate what your helpless ears fail to understand. A frightening havoc is wreaked on all of your aesthetic presumptions and tastes. Your poor little ears are traumatized. You question who you are and what you know. Your cousin is the devil and his music is devil music. Whatever record that was; it just blew your tiny mind. Things will never be the same again…
After a period of recovery, adventurous listeners (or those with an attachment to music so imperative and consuming they have little choice in the matter) will come to embrace these disorienting experiences, relishing the riotous upheaval and welcoming the expansion of their sense for what’s possible in music. You’ll do research on the scary record, assuaging your fear while broadening your interest with background and criticism culled from magazines and books. You’ll call your cousin: “Hey, dangerous cousin! What else can you tell me about that scary band? Will you make me a devil mix?” Soon, you’ll muster the courage to buy your own copy of the felonious album. Gradually, after repeated listens, it becomes a permanent part of your personal music archives and you’ll announce resolutely that you’re into a new band. Entire sections of your record collection will suddenly sound obsolete as a result of all this. You’ll hang new posters and subscribe to new magazines — past editions of which you’ll bring to your cousin, with a carton of Newports, at the youth detention center.
Like any aesthetic experience worth pursuing to its conclusion, listening to Daydream Nation is a perilous, soul-blowout-type affair. For a record with a cover image so stark and serene, Daydream Nation features inordinately bracing turbulences, ghastly imagery, and hair-raising momentum. It challenges, overwhelms, and exhausts. Of course, let’s not forget (why, whhhh-fucking-yyyyyyy, is this point so under-served in discussions of the band’s merits and achievements?) Sonic Youth is capable of reaching places of stunning, drop-your-pants beauty and rapturous grace with their music. Daydream Nation is rich with first-order examples of this kind of material. Aside from the transcendent aural respite provided during these, what we’ll call the shimmering, passages, Sonic Youth, in what turns out to be reliably humane fashion, helps the listener along by taking pains to structure the album as four maneuverable, self-contained (but interrelated) sides. For all of my blustering on about Daydream Nation’s daunt, this actually was an aspect of the record not lost on Sonic Youth. At once acknowledging the potential challenges posed by the album’s scope and evidencing the band’s basic decency, Lee Ranaldo explains that the track layout of Daydream Nation was conscientiously designed to afford our ears certain stretching-out periods: “We really shaped those sides very carefully; a single side of a vinyl record is the perfect experience in terms of time—about 20 or 25 minutes—the perfect amount of time to sit and listen to something without too much taxation.”
If, in your listening, you proceed through the record according to the itinerary Sonic Youth has provided, take breaks when they tell you to, and keep this book close at hand — everything will be fine. I promise.