It says a lot about an artist when they quote fine art on an album cover. For Bowie, it meant his fascination with and immersion into a new, clean, modern, German way of life. For Iggy Pop, it meant he was hanging out with Bowie too much. For Coldplay, it meant the band thought the French spoke Spanish.
Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation is a little harder to decipher, because, let’s face it, this record is a fucking mess. It’s 70 minutes of drone and swirl, wrapped around a mist of surrealist one-liners. To make matters even more confusing, the work on the front is Gerhard Richter‘s Kerze (“Candle”) – a photorealistic painting. The album and its artwork seem to work in reverse patterns, with the music deconstructing a musical reality and the art crafting a reality from raw materials.
But really, there’s more to it.
Whereas this album’s most well-known tracks are famously poppy and dissonant, “The Wonder” constitutes another facet of the record; one that sounds like something between the beating teen heart of “Teen Age Riot” and the psychedelic shitstorm of the “Eric’s Trip”/”Total Trash” combo.
As the song progresses, you start to feel the lines blur. 14 seconds in, when the guitars kick in, you can already hear the dissonance in the non-standard tuning. After about 50 seconds, a non-descript klack-klack sound accompanies the beat, just under the radar of the casual listener. The bridge at 1:30 the takes the beat out of the equation for a bit and lets the distortion linger in the air – this is when I start to lose track of what guitar is doing what. Then, at about 2:10, SY sets their phazers to stun and unleash a torrent of freak-out solos – this is when I stop whatever I’m doing and turn the volume up. If you’re listening to it just right, it sounds like the apocalypse just crawled up your pant leg without you noticing.
In some of the most poignant albums every created, it’s often the shortest and most ignored songs that unveil the most interesting details. On My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, there is such a song titled “Touched”: lyricless, made entirely from sampled bits of synth, less than a minute long, and written by the drummer. In short, nothing at all what you would expect from Kevin “Control Freak” Shields’ band. But really, it’s a song that unravels the threads of Loveless - its a meta-song highlighting the blueprint for most of the songs on the record and it functions as the soul of the album.
“Providence” serves a similar purpose as the often misunderstood “Touched”. It’s Sonic Youth’s foray into musique concrète, and a strikingly beautiful experiment. The track is comprised of 3 interwoven portions: 1) an absent-minded piano twinkling in the background, 2) two answering machine messages, 3) a guitar amp overheating. The tone of the piece is complex but not hard to understand. We can’t be sure what the speaker is stressing out about, but my mind always turns to drugs, and a junkie missing his stash is not a pretty sight. Meanwhile in the background, Moore plays an improvised tune with no repeating pattern, which bounces off the destructive flourishes of the ruined amp. Together, the track is greater than the sum of its parts, and it unleashes a dreamlike hemorrhage of imagery.
The album’s artwork functions much like “The Wonder” and “Providence”. The longer you look at Kerze, the easier it is to believe that it’s not a crafted painting on canvas, but a documentative photograph. Even more specifically, it’s not the edges of the artwork that sell the idea, but the bright, white hot flame. It’s awfully hard to look at the way the fire blurs the space around it and not be convinced of its reality.
In “The Wonder”, the crescendo melts down towards the core of the song until the track is transformed into a whirlwind of musical abstraction. “Providence” attacks from another angle, taking three displaced entities and creating its own version of Kerze‘s flame. This is an album that meshes reality with abstraction, by blurring the lines, and although Sonic Youth does it a little more noisily than Richter, it’s the thought that counts.
Artist: Sonic Youth
Album: Daydream Nation
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)