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Matthew Stearns, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation

Complete and well-researched analysis of the most important album by arguably the most important and innovative band of their time.
The author, musical critic Matthew Stearns, works backwards from the recent official acknowledgment as a true historical document: in 2006 the US Library of Congress added Daydream Nation to the permanent archives of the National Recording Registry. Not merely the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame… Nice deed for an indie rock album.

Following a foreword by Lee Ranaldo, a preface and an intro, the book is organized into sections, according to the four sides of the original vynil record; this sequence interlocking in turn with five chapters exploring related subjects: the band’s cumulative influences, the indie scene, the social, cultural and political zeitgeist, NY and modern art as primary influences, the recording process during the awful summer of ’88, the album’s art and packaging…

Sonic Youth surfaced in the early eighties as heirs to the New York traditions of both rock-meets-avantgarde of the Velvet Underground and poetry-meets-postpsychedelic guitarwork of Television.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, their roots were not in the indie/postpunk/no wave burgeoning scene as much as in experimental music and even nonmusical contexts, such as modern art. Obviously New York was also a major influence on their claustrophobic, schizoid, beautifully dissonant sound, developed in the string of albums that marked the decade, culminating in Daydream Nation. As Ranaldo acknowledges, they “started from scratch again” at the turn of the decade with Goo, first record of their major-label period. And yet another chapter began in the new century with NYC Ghosts & Flowers, with Jim O’Rourke joining the ranks and the founding of SYR (Sonic Youth Records).

Back to ’88.
Reaganism giving way to Bush #1, AIDS and crack murdering people at unprecedented rates, the mainstream music scene totally crap. SY enter Green St. studios with Nic Sansano, whose “previous engineering duties included production work on Public Enemy’s […] It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”, another urgent State of the Union Address: hence the titles.

Stearns has interviewed all of the band members, as well as recording engineer Nicholas Sansano. Precious material both to the SY fan and to the curious reader. The only disappointing aspect is Stearns’ tendency to get too carried away with redundant embellishments, especially when interpreting the album’s lyrics.
But this is just as good: as a consequence of this slight disappointment I won’t be overanxious to order my next 33⅓ guide. Speaking of which…

On Continuum 33⅓ series
Just take a look at their catalogue. These books sell for €6, less if you’re lucky [edit: no longer since amazon bought bookdepository]. Irresistible. The perfect drug. Here’s some from my wishlist, and mind you that’s just the top of the list: Electric Ladyland, Forever Changes, Trout Mask Replica, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Horses, Another Green World, Low, Loveless

Matthew Stearns
Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation
pp. 172, £9
Bloomsbury/Continuum, 2007

Giudizio: 3/5.

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