Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sure, I'll Say It: Daydream Nation Sucks.

In 1988, Sonic Youth released Daydream Nation. Any level-headed fan of rock music is supposed to love this album, but I have no idea why. Most of the songs are about two minutes too long. Four of the songs eclipse the seven-minute mark, and only one of those has a slight ounce of charm (“The Sprawl,” and that charm runs dry around the four-minute mark or whenever Kim Gordon is singing the chorus.) A majority of the songs are completely tuneless (“Silver Rocket”), boring (“Eric’s Trip”), or nearly unlistenable (“Trilogy: z) Eliminator Jr.”). I would do more of a track-by-track analysis, but that means I’d have to listen to Daydream Nation all the way through. Maybe even more than once.

So why is Daydream Nation considered to be immortal? Perhaps it’s as good as advertised, and I am simply wrong. Possible, but ultimately unlikely (and certainly not fun for discussion). Maybe this idea that the media perceives Daydream Nation to be a masterpiece is something I conjured up in my mind. Again, that’s not it. Just ask All Tomorrow’s Parties and Michael Azerrad. Or better yet, read every review ever done by a respectable music outlet that gives it a damn near perfect rating. But there is a theory that I think ultimately works, and here it is.

If your college experience was at all similar to mine, perhaps you once found yourself in a dorm room with a group of people, and someone brought up the idea to turn out the lights and watch 2001: A Space Odyssey. It seemed like a good idea. You all had plenty of beer, there weren’t many girls around (or at least, let’s hope not), and it’s allegedly one of the greatest movies ever made (not to mention directed by Stanley Kubrick). There’s only one problem: the movie is awful. Oh, sure, I guess it was ahead of its time, and probably broke some sort of new ground. Whatever. You start watching the movie, and it’s only a tad longer than two hours, but you could swear it lasts the entire semester. You get about ten minutes into that scene where the astronaut is just floating around and you’re hoping to God he just spontaneously combusts, followed by credits, or that one of your friends has the stones to do what no one else does, which is get up, and turn the movie off. You see, I’m not sure people really like 2001: A Space Odyssey. They just feel like they should like it. Similar to some self-loathing American who claims to enjoy soccer, they’re watching the movie so they can hopefully find themselves at a dinner party in the near future and discuss it intelligently. Well, Daydream Nation is the musical equivalent to 2001: A Space Odyssey. That’s what’s going on here.

Now, in the interest of fairness, allow me to reconcile a couple of things: First, the album doesn’t actually “suck” in the literal sense of the word. It’s actually just “okay.” But it does suck when you compare its merits versus the heaps of praise that has been levied on it from every direction for the last 20 years.

Second, “Teenage Riot” is one of my favorite songs ever, and one of my favorite “Track 1’s” ever. The song is amazing, but so what. We’re talking the entire album here. They kicked off Daydream Nation with a face-melter to serve as a nice piece of subterfuge. Smart idea, but hardly novel.

Third, I was only nine-years-old when this album was released by Enigma in 1988, and Sonic Youth was nowhere near my radar. Ozzie Smith was. Therefore, maybe I just don’t “get it.” I first listened to Sonic Youth early in high school when I got Goo through some horrible Columbia House deal. (I’m sure I still owe Columbia House money, even though they had to be aware deep down they were ripping me off, and ripping off every na├»ve 14-year-old in America.) If 15 years from now some snot-nosed kid born in the 90’s is shitting on Chutes Too Narrow, I would probably call him a moron and play the, “You weren’t there, man,” card. But, be that as it may, there are plenty of records on my shelf circa 1988 that have aged much better than Daydream Nation. If the reverb-heavy vocals on Galaxie 500’s On Fire is like fine wine, then the incoherent noise that makes up 1/3 of Daydream Nation is Carlo Rossi. Furthermore, there are plenty of people young enough to be the offspring of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon who strut around and claim Daydream Nation is amazing. Certainly I’m entitled to do the exact opposite.

Fourth, as some may know, the very first post on this site (before I knew how to use commas) had me at the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival all excited about seeing Sonic Youth playing Daydream Nation in its entirety. So how do I now explain this? Simple. I hadn’t realized how much the album bored me yet. I was still trying to convince myself that I liked it (see paragraph that explains the 2001: A Space Odyssey paradox). That could sound shallow. The idea that I was trying to convince myself to like a record because I had been told I should. But it’s not really like that. I’m usually more trustworthy than skeptical when I hear about a record or a band that is supposed to be essential. Whenever a friend or a trusted media source tells me I will like a record, guess what? I usually do. If things don’t click right away, I’ll keep at it. Usually, I’ll come around. Sometimes I won’t and I’ll bail. I bailed on Daydream Nation not long after that 2007 festival. And if you read what I wrote, I didn’t actually stay and watch the whole set. Half-way through I drifted to the back of the park and just laid down and listened/napped. Does that matter? Maybe. I know I wasn’t thinking about leaving the stage when Slint was playing Spiderland. Fine. But what about when I wrote this: “Laying in the grass in Union Park watching Sonic Youth close out Daydream Nation was an experience that won’t be soon forgotten.” Overkill. Looking back, what I really meant was, “Man, I’m about to embark on a weekend filled with live music. And, some of my friends that I haven’t seen in awhile will be arriving tomorrow. I’m excited.” The actual music was inconsequential to the scene. Replace Sonic Youth and Daydream Nation with Pearl Jam and Binaural and things wouldn’t have been much different.

So does this mean Sonic Youth is a bad band? Of course not. They are a very good band, with a couple of great records (Goo and Dirty come to mind). I just don’t think Daydream Nation is one of them. As to why I am thinking of this now, I don’t know. It’s not like Daydream Nation is celebrating a seminal anniversary anytime soon. I guess it will be old enough to buy a case of Budweiser come October, but that’s about it. (This was originally going to be an “Everyone Has One…,” piece but 1,300 words later, I realized it had to be its own beast.) So, here I guess is my point: Your friends, and even rock critics, usually know what’s best for you. They really do. But not always, and the final arbiter on whether or not a record is great is you. And even more importantly, I’m writing this so the next time you’re at a party, and someone slides in Daydream Nation, be the guy with the stones that casually turns it off. Oh, sure, people will throw you unbelievable looks of disdain, but deep down, they’ll love you for it.



Jim P. said...

I agree with everything you said about Daydream Nation and disagree with everything you said about 2001. DN is just not that good.

Travis said...

Great point, it needed to be said. A couple of things:

1. I've long harbored similar feelings about DN, but to be fair, I wanted to sit down and listen to it all the way through before I wrote it off completely. However, I started and stopped this endeavor more times than I have done the same with reading Gravity's Rainbow. But whereas the density of GR was the stumbling block, utter boredom kept me from getting through DN.

2. That said, I finally have DN a full and fair listen about a month ago, and actually enjoyed it, but definitely not to the level of praise that is usually heaped upon it.

3. Kim Gordon. Hate her voice. Hate her lyrics.

4. Thurston Moore. Not a big fan of his vocals either.

5. I felt like the art-rock "noise" that this album is often praised for incorporating into a more mainstream rock album, is kind of a cheat. It seemed almost all of it occurs on tacked-on fade-outs.

Alex said...

I haven't seen 2001: A Space Odyssey in years, but I remember that being my reaction.

I think one thing that SY always had going for them is that they're "cool." And I don't mean that in a denigrating way. A couple of quasi-Soho intellectuals forming a rock band, it's a good formula. And they have some songs that are great.

(I meant to mention this, but "The Candle" is also a pretty swell song.)

Jim P. said...

I actually saw Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon on the street a few years ago in Soho. They are both very tall and look pretty horrible.

Brian said...

Travis, read The Crying of Lot 49 first. It's amazing. 2001, on the other hand, is not. It's so boring, and I sat all the way through Gerry.

Daydream Nation suffers today because it was seminal then. Think on it. . .

Alex said...

Powers, did you read that part in the original post that I linked to where I said Kim Gordon still looked fantastic? Just know I was pretty far from the stage.

Brian said...

Also meant to say that CL49 is only about 150 pages long. It's mini-Pynchon.

Brian said...

Hey, you know what they say, one man's "looks pretty horrible" is another man's "still looks fantastic." Alex does gravitate toward the hollow-cheeked and vein-y.

Jim P. said...

I did not see that. I can see how she would probably look good from afar, but up close, not so much. Also, any lady on stage with a guitar is going to look a million times better than that same lady walking down the street.

Alex said...

Man, these comments turned mean.

Jim, what am I missing about 2001? How does it not bore you to death?

Anth said...

Sonic Youth is very close to the top of the list of bands I would absolutely love if they had a different/better vocalist. Kim and Thurston are both pretty awful. The guitars are amazing, and I really, really wanted to get into them. But I just can't get past the vocals. And that says a lot since I can get past Billy Corgan's and Axl Rose's voices.

Jim P. said...

I can see how someone could consider 2001 boring - I don't think you're missing anything. I just disagree. I'm also a sucker for any movie that looks good, and that movie looks amazing.

Travis said...

Alex, I think the scenario you described is maybe one of the worst for watching 2001. Nevertheless I echo Jim P's comments. I think 2001 is a visual and sonic masterpiece. I think the problem is that most people's expectations derive from either its 'trippy' reputation or the HAL plot, and aren't prepared for the rest.

Brian, I did read L49 after my initial failure to get through Gravity's Rainbow, and I agree its great. It only strengthened my resolve to someday complete GR, but the problem is, I only get through a couple pages in a sitting, and if I miss a couple of days, I have to go a couple pages back to feel like I know what's going on (though usually I haven't really 'missed' anything, but it's hard to keep going when forward you're not sure).

Oh, and music.

Jenifer said...

I can see how she would probably look good...

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