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33 1/3: Daydream Nation (2007) May 7, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Music.
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Daydream Nation

Matthew Stearns: Daydream Nation

Sonic Youth’s 1988 album Daydream Nation is one of the great rock albums of the last 25 years. It’s the record on which, after releasing several noisy, experimental, and sometimes inconsistent — but generally good — albums, Sonic Youth took a bold step towards accessibility without selling out. There’s noise and strange beauty, but there are also some great rock songs there, too.

Daydream Nation was well received on its release and got a lot of good reviews, which is how it ended up being the first SY album I bought. I loved it from the first listen and still think it’s one of the highlights of their long, productive, and still ongoing career. So when I heard that the album would be profiled in one of the 33 1/3 books, I was really looking forward to reading it. Then I hit Matthew Stearns’s wall of prose. Example:

If the act of listening to music requires some degree of participatory commitment from the listener, and if that commitment itself takes place as a kind of merging and identifying with the action and drama of the record, then Daydream Nation asks for one hell of a commitment. Based on the sheer scope of  its attack, Daydream Nation poses a direct, imminent threat to the safety and well being of its listeners. At the very least, it threatens the security and structural viability of its listener’s ears. This record eats ears — chews them up with its gnarled sonic teeth and swallows them whole.

In this sense, it’s perfectly appropriate, and not shameful at all, to be slightly frightened by Daydream Nation. By reputation and in size, it stands as a kind of outsized rock ‘n’ roll behemoth — an overwhelming monstrosity (in the sense that monsters typically tend to be born of extremes, rife with power, difficult to contain, and mythic in proportion — Daydream Nation certainly meets all of these qualifications) capable of crushing the will of the most resilient, well-intentioned listener if the necessary preparations haven’t been made.

Um, no. Never mind that swallowing something whole generally involves no chewing. This is unrestrained and undeniably enthusiastic, a rush of words written with passion, and it was probably a blast to write, but it doesn’t make for good reading.

The book does have a lot of information; Stearns had some access to band members, and SY’s Lee Ranaldo wrote an introduction. But that prose style just never lets up. I’ve read a dozen books in this series but this one was the only one I had to struggle to finish.