As I sit here with my original CD of Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation" -- tray spindles gone, case cracked and unclosable, but still slightly possessed of the patchouli smell that was so strong 15 years ago -- I have to wonder what the hell's wrong with this world. Long lauded as a watershed album for the post-punk "alternative" movement and as proof of what can happen when boho, art-fag no-talents reshape their guitar assault into an avant-melodic overload, "Daydream Nation" is still the album that defines the sound that germinated in the mid-'80s and imploded with "Nevermind." "Daydream Nation" is simply one of the best albums ever made. Ever.
So why is it that 1992's "Dirty," a seriously less-than-best album by Sonic Youth, is the first album in their oeuvre to get the "Deluxe Edition" treatment from their label's catalog department? It's not celebrating any readily recognizable anniversary. It's widely regarded as the album where SY lost their way, erring on the side of accessible -- rather than interesting -- rawk. Granted, it's a catchy record, with some pleasantly noisy bits. Granted, it's got what could almost be called Sonic Youth's "biggest hit" (cough, cough) in the form of "100%." And granted, "Daydream" is slated to get the deluxe treatment at some point, but starting with "Dirty" is a little weird. After all, "Dirty" was the sound of a great underground band actually trying to sell out.
Since 1982, Sonic Youth had defined the free-form aspirations of indie rock's intelligentsia, generating cascading waves of screwdriver-tuned dissonance that combined downtown improvisation with punk insouciance. Landmark records like "EVOL" and "Sister," along with collaborations with the likes of Lydia Lunch and Glenn Branca, presented an image of four freaks trying -- with mixed results -- to jam their noisier aspirations into pop formats. Most Sonic Youth songs in the mid-'80s, despite their most melodic intentions, would collapse into sheets of guitar noise that were exciting for their volume and their sheer inappropriateness. Yet, by the end of the '80s, the band had progressed from sounding like autistics to sounding like auteurs. "Daydream Nation" -- with its fully realized vision of elegant, intelligent pop noise -- Sonic Youth ruled the "underground."
Moving to the big leagues, by signing to DGC, they delivered Goo in 1990, which -- like "Daydream Nation" and "Sister" -- was possessed of many squealingly experimental moments. Yet the album had a distinctly bottle-blond, Hollywood feel to it. Songs like "Kool Thing" and "Dirty Boots" pushed to the fore the glammier, more rockist tendencies that had been evidenced in small doses on "Silver Rocket" and other songs.
After "Goo," a little band from the Northwest Sonic Youth had helped get signed to DGC -- Nirvana -- released "Nevermind" and the entire rock landscape was irreversibly altered. The old guard seemed to think this meant their time had come, and SY modified their next album ("Dirty") to increase their chances of radio success. The noisy, noodly bits were clipped and rock tracks like "Swimsuit Issue" and pop nuggets like "Sugar Kane" were emphasized. Thanks to the 20 extra tracks that pad out the double-disc "Deluxe Edition," it becomes quite clear that "Dirty" became a calculated attempt to sell records. A good dozen of the songs here are fiery instrumental demos of songs that would end up on the album and, on these versions at least, Sonic Youth sounds like Sonic Youth. Tracks like "The End of the Ugly" and "Barracuda" (early, instrumental demos of "Swimsuit Issue" and "Drunken Butterfly," respectively) show they were fully possessed of their avant-rock abilities; they just decided against using it in the final mix in the hope of shifting units.
Of course, they didn't shift very many units and the albums that followed found the band retracing their steps away from Hollywood and back toward the noisy rock classiness of "Daydream Nation," a journey that culminated with the genius of last year's "Murray Street." Still, hearing "Dirty" in this new context makes it a little easier to understand. Though other non-album gems -- like a cover of "Personality Crisis" and B-sides like "Hendrix Necro" -- are certainly enjoyable, being able to hear "Dirty" for the failed pop masterpiece it was supposed to be validates the existence of this edition.
But I still say they started with the wrong one.