Review Summary: You can have it all
For a classic band, Yo La Tengo are a bit hard to pin down. In their ‘90s-early ‘00s heyday, their records were unwieldy fusions of sweetly mellow indie jams, shoegaze, and noisy guitar freakouts, the type of combination which didn’t always result in fully coherent releases but did make them indie darlings and possessors of a passionate fan base. As someone who absolutely adores the band, I freely acknowledge that their best albums are still generally inconsistent, almost always containing a questionable decision or two. And every YLT fan has their preferred side of the band - for me, it’s the gentle, earnest, and dreamy pop tunes: give me stuff like “A Worrying Thing” or “The Hour Grows Late” any day of the week.
As such, it’s been revealing to witness the group’s late-era evolution, with albums like 2013’s Fade
and 2018’s There’s A Riot Going On
dropping most of the band’s louder and aggressive aspects for progressively sleepier and more chill stylings. In theory, someone like me would love this, but the reality is a bit different. While there’s still a lot of sonic gold to be found in YLT’s recent work - it’s easy to get lost in the seductively lazy vibes of the aforementioned There’s A Riot Going On
and I can’t deny that Sleepless Night
approaches excellence as a warm and nostalgia-inducing EP (albeit one dominated by covers) - mostly this latest epoch has felt like the group gently sinking into a malaise. In short, this period demonstrates just how vital the “throw everything at a wall” approach of halcyon days was to the band’s success. Sure, not every moment or every song on a record like I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
is truly “essential”, but the explosive variety makes the top-notch segments hit a little harder and provides a sense of balance to the whole package.
With all that in mind, YLT’s latest album is an absolute shot in the arm. This Stupid World
was self-produced by the band and adopts a more “live”-style sound. More generally, it’s a return to the more diverse soundscapes of the collective’s best work, and contains a damn good set of songs to boot. While not primed to surpass albums like Painful
in the storied group’s pecking order, This Stupid World
comfortably slots into the (excellent) second tier of YLT releases, a significant accomplishment and one that dramatically pumps the brakes on any claims that the band is approaching musical oblivion.
“Sinatra Drive Breakdown'' is, simply put, a fantastic opener. Its seven minute-plus length, bedrock of noisy guitar, and eventual slide into a pulsing groove all signify that the band is riding free and easy on this LP. Second track “Fallout” is shorter and catchier, representing the kind of stock indie rocker which YLT do so well (see notable inclusions like “Tom Courtenay” or “Autumn Sweater”). While “Fallout” isn’t on their level, it doesn’t wilt in their company either, and proves to be another sign of the strength of the material on This Stupid World
. Meanwhile, the album’s mid-section leans towards YLT’s softer side, as demonstrated by the sheer beauty of “Aselestine”, anchored by Georgia Hubley’s ever-wonderful vox, and the simultaneously mild and morbid “Until It Happens”. Finally, the album’s closing trio brings back the noise, with “Brain Capers” representing the album’s most sweeping jam, while the title track is a lengthy meditation over roaring guitar, and the somber “Miles Away” provides a suitable finish, dangling its feet over the abyss of full-on shoegaze, but never quite taking the leap.
This Stupid World
might bear a title which suggests exhausted cynicism, but the album demonstrates a band reinvigorated. In some ways it’s a rather uncharacteristic effort by the group, given a fairly concise runtime and an unceasing stretch of reliable quality throughout, but the headline takeaway is that YLT is back to fiddling with a full range of the varied styles they manipulated so artfully back in their prime. As such, it’s an immensely satisfying listen. Wide-ranging and full of thoughtful lyricism focused on the passage of time, life, and death, This Stupid World
is exactly the album I’d hoped Yo La Tengo could and would release in 2023. Even if this record remains a step below the band’s defining releases, it’s a strong contender for their best outing in over two decades.