The City and the Suburbs – Part 1

A while back I threatened to write a three-part series about three great albums that feel thematically connected: Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs.  So here goes.

Daydream Nation

I remember vividly the first time I ever listened to this – I was driving in my stick-shift 1986 Saab 900 from my 51st/Dorchester apartment in Hyde Park to do some Debate coaching at Homewood-Flossmoor, probably in 1999.  I remember liking “Teenage Riot,” in fact feeling especially glad that someone had written that song.  If there is a “grunge anthem”, this is it, even if it’s four years before the fact.  I remember the opening guitar sign-on – the start of the album feels like someone plugging in their amps, warming up for about a minute, and then the glorious opening riff.  I also remember not liking the rest of the album.  It’s not user-friendly, for the most part, and feels same-y upon the initial listen.  Since then I’ve probably listened to it 40 or 50 or 60 times.  Sometimes I wish something kept track of this for me.  ITunes does, sort of, but that would only count the last 2-3 years.

Someone once asked me – “if this is a ‘concept album’ [he was already in full-throttle Jeremiad mode proving that there is no such thing], then what is the, like, concept?”  That’s a fair question.  It’s tempting to say “urban life circa 1988”, or “Lower East Side Hipster montage”, I don’t know.  For me the album is sort of arranged by three lyrics –

#1: “It’s getting’ kinda quiet in my city head/it takes a teenage riot to get me outta bed right now” (“Teenage Riot” – track 1)

#2: “Never mind it now/we can bring it back/it’s total trash” (“Total Trash” – track 6)

#3: “all coming from human imagination/Daydream their days in a daydream nation” (“Hyperstation” track 13)

So somewhere in there is a concept – teenage trash daydreams?  That sounds like pretentious rock-critic mashup.  Oh well – lyrics are actually not really the point.  I do like the lyrics, as far as they go, but at most, on Daydream Nation, they serve as reflecting points for the sounds.  What I really, really like, what has made me listen to this album all these many times, is the guitar.  This is the signature Sonic Youth sound.  The microstructured guitar with the bell-clanging, banging, alternative tuning, the careening, the soundscapes, everything else, all the other words reviewers always use.  It’s really hard to put your finger on… and so easier just to point to examples.

One of the high points of the album is the monumentally noisy and cantankerous “Total Trash” – coming in at 7:33.  The song seems to start with a traditional song structure, and a rather conventional rock-song riff.  It’s one of the more tuneful/melodious/sing-along-ish songs on the album, at least for the first three refrains.  What gradually happens, though, is that the noise takes over.  The song feels like a sort of battle, between the part where the music is subordinated to the singing, but then the noise keeps pushing and pushing to come off the rails.  Where an ordinary song would have a “bridge” – i.e., something in a fourth-higher key, that explores and develops the original melody but from a new perspective – what you have here is just an absolute breakdown.  This is something Sonic Youth has attempted on many, many tracks, but this is close to the Platonic form to which the rest aspire (with the possible exception of “Washing Machine”).  All that continues throughout is the drum, and that just barely.  At about 5:00, things come complete unhinged – you can still hear the original guitar riff, but then it gets assaulted and pummeled by crashing, distortion, vaguely reminiscent of “Sister Ray” but much less continuous – it makes that sound like more conventional blues.  And then things rebuild.  The original melody returns, but with the chaos and dissonance lingering in the background, reconceptualizing the whole.  The song ends with a beacon-like repeating guitar note, almost like a garbage truck backing up, and then a swirl and it fades.

The third side of the album (it was originally a double LP) resumes with more conventionally structured songs, showing what sounds like more Lee Renaldo influence, the first two sides having been dominated by Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon.  There’s the somewhat throwaway “Providence” (i.e., answering machine recording with sad piano and wind-noise overlay).  But one of the sonic high points of the album comes in the opening minute of “Candle,” an entrancing mesh of guitars evoking, of all emotions, nostalgia, not unlike “Life and How to Live It” from REM’s Fables of the Reconstruction.  This song also evokes hope, referencing the 1983 Gerhardt Richter painting of the same name.  But that perceived traditional song unity is vitiated by “Rain King” (oddly, a Lee Renaldo track according to Wikipedia, something I’d never have guessed) including some of the album’s loudest noise and one of the more jarring lyrics, for me anyway –

I need three years to clear these thoughts

I’d like to say I knew one true thing

it seems like years and I’ll have done is fought,

and not turned up, anything.

The album’s last side is easy to miss.  After all, how often do we listen to this sort of music the way it was probably intended?  If you’ve just extracted your “favorite songs” and put them on playlists, then you have not included “Kissability” or any of the three tracks of “The Trilogy.”  But they’re awesome.  There’s especially awesome when listened to as a bookend for the more than 50 minutes of music that have preceded them.  In a way I have trouble describing, “all coming from human imagination/daydream their days in a daydream nation” captures the entire emotional payoff of the album in just a couple of phrases.  There is an urgency and intensity – a sort of race to the end that does not relent until the final moments of “The Wonder.”  It does, in many ways, feel like the fourth movement of a late-classical/early-romantic symphony.

I get that this music isn’t for everyone – but for me it’s definitely in the all-time top 5.

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2 Responses to The City and the Suburbs – Part 1

  1. Nates says:

    I’m struck by the fact that you call it a concept album, but also say that the lyrics aren’t really the point. When I think of concept albums (like, say, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”), the lyrics are usual pretty essential to the concept. They really tie the room together.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to conceptually unify an album with music, but it seems much harder. For example, Beethoven’s 5th symphony is allegedly about fate, but would you ever guess that if someone didn’t tell you?

  2. Josh says:

    It’s not that the lyrics aren’t coherent or unified around a theme, it’s just that it’s not the most lyric-centered album ever. As for purely musical framing – if you listen to the little intros that begin each of the songs that started the original four “sides” you can hear some continuity too.

    The language of sound is surely a more difficult language through which to establish a concept, but I think it is possible. Also for Daydream Nation, the concept may be more of an emotional unity, rather than a conceptual one.

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