Loosed on the world in 1988, Daydream Nation made alt-rock a life force. Over two vinyl discs containing just fourteen titles, it fused Sonic Youth’s displaced guitar tunings with tunes as hummable as the Beatles’ or the Ramones’ — a standard they’ve matched ever since, but never again with quite so much anthemic consistency. The album’s evident mastery won them a major-label deal they’re still working even though their three singers have never shown any commercial potential. And soon they persuaded Geffen to sign a band whose singer did: Nirvana.
Heard today, Daydream Nation’s evocation of sonic youths with talent to burn and nowhere to build a fire is clearly rooted in the specifics of a Manhattan bohemia since transformed by Internet money and real estate sharks. Post-irony, its confusion-as-sex seems almost innocent. But its tunings keep it honest and its anthems keep it thrilling. A terrific bonus disc compiles covers that do justice to the band’s ambition — Mudhoney’s “Touch Me I’m Sick,” Neil Young’s “Computer Age,” the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” — and unearths live versions of every Daydream Nation song. These are rough, intense, welcome. But the studio versions are definitive, as dense as cluster bombs. “Your life is such a mess/Forget the past, and just say yes”? “You can buy some more and more and more and more”? As words, admissions of futility. Atop marshaled guitars, artistic war cries.