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Preview: Thirty Years of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation
Brian Coney , March 3rd, 2019 11:23

Sonic Youth’s fifth album – and defining statement – is being given the tribute it’s long deserved with a new film by Lance Bangs and a new cut of Charles Atlas’ seminal doc, Put Blood in the Music

"The group has just finished a long project that in some ways is the beginning of a new path, you might say.”

It’s mid-way through NYC filmmaker Charles Atlas’ seminal ode to downtown, Put Blood in the Music, and Lee Ranaldo is sat face-to-face with a tarot reader. The guitarist, who co-founded Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon seven years’ prior, is referring to the band’s chef-d’œuvre, Daydream Nation.

Though his wording was cautious, Ranaldo wasn’t wrong. In the three decades since its release, few rock albums have threatened the same game-changing majesty of Sonic Youth’s fifth studio album. Recorded with producer Nick Sansano in the summer of 1988, it refined the band’s sorcerous and supremely self-conscious craft to a 70-minute double album. That it proved an instant triumph was no surprise: its het up, scuzzed-out psalms to the near-future seemed to run parallel with the present.

The album’s 30th anniversary is being marked with a series of events presenting Daydream Nation-related films with filmmaker Lance Bangs, Sonic Youth archivist Aaron Mullan, Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley from the band, and others. By wielding carefully-curated – and, importantly, generation-spanning – source material, an immutable truth emerges: no matter the bandwidth or doting column inches that have been dedicated to it over the years, the legacy of Daydream Nation feels like it resides in the unrepeatable backdrop of its creation (namely New York City of 1988) and the epiphanies that it later spawned live. Only film could vividly translate those realities and it’s something that 30 Years of Daydream Nation comfortably pulls off.

The gist and schedule is straightforward: a “SY edit” of Put Blood in the Music is shown in a brand-new, restored transfer, followed by excerpts from Lance Bangs’ new concert film of the band performing Daydream Nation in its entirety in Glasgow in 2007. Rounding out the bill are unseen gems from the band’s archives with an emphasis on “localising” the presentation for each city. As ever with Sonic Youth, the fans play a sizeable role. “I’ve been in contact with tape traders and the people who originally filmed or taped the shows,” Mullan tells us. “Often times there are superior audio sources that we can re-sync with video, and with modern tools we can fix old issues like misaligned azimuth, DC offset, and just plain old noise to present old recordings better than they've been seen or heard before. Audiences often get emotional about the archival stuff.”

Centring on the heady creative energy of New York at the tail-end of the 1980s, Atlas’ Put Blood in the Music feels inextricable from the Daydream Nation story. Featuring a towering cast of scene protagonists including Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch and John Cale, it’s a busy and beatific eulogy to, as one voice puts it early on, “the white noise of the city sounds” that finds Sonic Youth – still fresh from laying down their defining statement – thriving centre-stage. Nothing hones in on the essential topographical heart of Daydream Nation quite like this particular edit of Atlas’ film.

Fast-forwarding twenty years, long-time Sonic Youth collaborator Lance Bangs’ new concert film bounds forth today as an equally vital document from the recent past. Capturing the band, four years shy of disbanding, revisiting Daydream Nation at Glasgow’s ABC in 2007, it’s a slow-burning, multi-camera throwback that, crucially, frames the occasion with the fans (shots of the giddy yet static onlooking mass conveys something more potent than Charles Atlas or anyone else could ever hope.) Just as the woman who introduces Put Blood in the Music refers to downtown Manhattan on the cusp of the 1990s, the band’s “loud, violent, non-stop energy” is laid bare, a transmission coursing forth as sheer meditative resolve.

If there’s one thing 30 Years of Daydream Nation exhumes it’s that Sonic Youth’s defining statement didn’t just mirror the rapture and anxiety that was New York, America and the world at the tail-end of the decade. From the vantage point of the future it fiercely confronted – by having this chance to view it via the broad prism of Bangs’, Atlas’ and Mullan’s presentations – it feels like a self-contained revelation forever insisting upon the beginning of another new path. As Ranaldo incants on Daydream peak ‘Hey Joni’: “Forgot the past, and just say yes.” Thank God they took their own advice.

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