Back in the nation of daydreamers

Almost twenty years ago I brought home a cassette copy of Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation from Cellophane Square records, stuck it in my parent’s car deck, and began an obsession with the band that hasn’t stopped. 1988 was a good year for me, music-wise; it was the same year that Nirvana started playing in Seattle college gyms and art galleries that underage types like us could see, Mudhoney and the rest of the scene were screaming at exactly the touch-me-I’m-sick pitch an 18-year-old wanted to hear, the Minneapolis scene was still sending Husker Replacement Asylum genius in our direction … But of all the brilliant music to come out of those few years, Sonic Youth is the one band to have stayed in my playlists continually.

In part that’s because they provide so much musical room to grow up with, and in. They’re constantly experimenting, and as my own tastes expanded from guitars-only to things that go buzz, drone, or click, their catalog kept pace. Their major-label works have almost always stayed fresh, even if a few were a bit sub-par; and the things they’ve released on their own range from modern composers like Cage and Reich to unlistenable feedback noise. Which: Beautiful.

A few days ago we saw them come through Berlin, on a tour playing Daydream Nation all the way through. I had trepidations about going. It felt too much like something the Rolling Stones or other aging rockers (which, granted, they are) would do, and not at all in the spirit of constant exploration and experimentation that they stand for. But, c’mon, it was Daydream Nation, we had to go.

It was brilliant. They’re older now. Thurston had to stop in the middle of a song intro and go get glasses, so he could read the lyric sheet. The on-stage rockout factor is decidedly lower. But the noise is brilliant, the jet-engine power and pit-thrashing polyrhythms undiminished; watching Silver Rocket’s riffs whip a 30-something crowd into a full punk swarm in the middle of the club felt like it was the late 80s all over again.

And in a way it is. The corporate music scene is stagnant. Underground innovation is everywhere, breaking across genre lines, utterly disassociated from mainstream sounds. Bush and Co. have rekindled an anti-establishment feeling verging on apocalyptic despair, familiar to anyone who was a teenager in the Reagan ’80s. Daydream Nation isn’t explicitly a protest album; it’s an art-punk, no-wave vision of an alternate reality, or a world described in sound located just under this one’s skin. It’s just as relevant, and just as mind blowing today as it was then.