Sonic Youth: Daydream Nation
“One has to believe in what one is doing, one has to commit oneself inwardly, in order to do painting. Once obsessed, one ultimately carries it to the point of believing that one might change human beings through painting.”
Gerhard Richter 1973
The same could probably be said of music.
When Sonic Youth went into a modest New York basement studio in 1988 they baulked at the $1,000 a day fee. Although they’d previously recorded four other albums, they had yet to achieve a national profile and only had limited means. To keep the budget under $30,000 the band worked through the night and rushed some of their takes.
Despite these limitations, it seems they had some inkling that down in their basement they were building a monument. Everything about the finished result announced a bold intent, from the double album format through to its suggestive title. And the cover became central to its iconic status. As Jutta Koether, a German artist and critic, wrote in the liner notes to the 1993 Reissue, “With the inclusion of “high-art” cover-art, it became visually and musically a description of loss and self-doubt.”
After 8 years of Reagan, the candle represents a lone spark of hope and optimism, one that is albeit vulnerable and lonely. Depending on whether you are a “half glass full” or “half glass empty” kind of person, it could either represent the undying hope that Obama evoked or the dwindling remainder of once-great aspirations.
The featured artwork is “Kerze” (candle), a painting by German artist Gerhard Richter.
Facing the complicated question of what to paint at the beginning of his career, Richter instead decided to amass thousands of images taken from photos and clippings. He would pick one, project it onto the canvas and then recreate it in a photo-realistic manner. The distinctive touch that brought him a worldwide following is the “Blur” – the smudging he applies that disrupts the image.
He also went on to create a body of abstract work.
He’s an amazing artist. But by the late 80’s he was also an artist of the establishment, so the band’s decision to use his image was as unexpected as it was inspired. The inside-fold of the sleeve features a portrait of Sonic Youth circa 1988 and they don’t exactly look like they’re on the best galleries’ opening night invite lists yet.
The gap between the value of the Richter’s painting and the income of the “Daydream Nation” was only underscored when “Kerze” went under the hammer at 2008 Sotheby’s auction. Sonic Youth fans watched on gob-smacked as members of Europe’s high society rapidly drove the price up with every bid. It eventually went for over 7 million pounds.
But who needs the painting anyway? For less than $50 you can score a Daydream Nation poster for your wall and the soundtrack to go with it. You’ll find it still sounds pretty relevant.