Four years before Nevermind made alt-rock mainstream, Daydream Nation put alt-rock in the underground unconscious. Until then, Sonic Youth was a regional phenomena, a New York art-damage combo whose droning guitar tunings and dirge-y songwriting saw them lead a soon-to-influence scuzz-rock scene that included Swans and Live Skull.
Twenty years on, Daydream Nation sounds more important than it was good. Sonic Youth's constant touring meant its songs could grow and take shape on the road, and for most of the band's catalog the results could be amazing. But with DN, the touring meant exposure to more conventionally rock and punk bands the album has a love-hate relationship with the pre-grunge sound and its hardcore punk roots that influence it. The Anniversary Edition here features live versions of the album's songs, and almost all become amped-up thrash versions pushed into blurry races to some unseen finish line.
The Youth's trademarks of spindly, oddly-tuned hooks and ebb-and-flow arrangements are here. But the faster, rocking songs such as "Silver Rocket" and the so-cool-it's-cold "Total Trash" make for an even sloppier catapult for the live versions. And the live takes rarely capture the studio versions' cohesive blend of manic and melancholy.
The Youth hit its stride in the early '90s on Dirty. But Daydream Nation is still much better, even with its sloppy live cuts, than its 1990 major-label debut, Goo. In an era where other bands do Sonic Youth better than Sonic Youth (Blonde Redhead for its melancholy guitar, Trail Of Dead for its sprawling bee-hive-to-lullaby epics), Daydream Nation is the Youth at its most "alt"-rocking, sure, but it's not the band's best.
Hobey Echlin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].