It might seem harsh, but it’s debatable whether we actually need any more Yo La Tengo albums. The trio from Hoboken, New Jersey have achieved a remarkable longevity (a little like Sonic Youth until their recent demise), and a dependable consistency in terms of quality. Yet there can be little doubt that the group achieved its career peak with contrasting masterpieces I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Both albums sprawled in their different ways, the former a gloriously ragged, tempestuous and varied beast, the latter achieving a meditative, melancholy quality that took the band into entirely new spaces.
Since then, their music has had a likeable somnambulance (particularly on the dreamlike haze of Summer Sun) or a devil-may-care freewheeling approach (the protracted pieces that begin and conclude the brilliantly titled I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass). As excellent as this run of albums has been, it has not included another giant step in the band’s evolution or progression. This is flatlining – but at least it is flatlining at a very high level.
There is little on Fade that has not been heard before. Whilst it does eschew the group’s recent penchant for extended jams in favour of a concise ten tracks, pretty much every other element of Yo La Tengo’s signature sound is in check. There are the usual wistful pieces of ’60s pop nostalgia, whispery psychedelia and relentless fuzzy grooves.
Proceedings do not start terribly well. Whilst the murmur of percussion that intiates the insistent chug of Ohm seems enticing enough, the track itself feels oddly lifeless and static. It is followed by Is That Enough, which sounds as if it should be a classic slice of Yo La Tengo dream pop. It has some lovely string lines but is ultimately undone by its sheer cloying cuteness, the band’s light and fluffy qualities here becoming a little too saccharine.
Fortunately, things do improve considerably, although in a decidedly relaxed and unforced style. The quiet motorik virtues of Well You Better and Paddle Forward are much more effective, whilst Stupid Things meanders beautifully in a manner very characteristic of the group, with some gentle guitar explorations from Ira Kaplan that seem to support the song’s sensitive lyric. The folk tinged I’ll Be Around is gorgeous and deliciously understated, its delicate finger picked guitar acting as a soothing balm.
As has frequently been the case with later Yo La Tengo albums, the surface appearance of this music is deceptively simple. Delve beneath it, and the artistry that has fuelled the group for three decades gradually reveals itself. One of the great strengths of this ensemble is its admirable restraint – a tendency to use only the softest of brush strokes, leaving much of the music’s colour and character implied. Ira Kaplan’s conversational vocal style and Georgia Hubley’s detached monotone contribute to this superbly. There is no space for histrionics or banal emoting in this band’s discreet and often elegant music. The lush Cornelia and Jane seems to be a prime example of the band’s deft skills – with brass adding subtle shades whilst somehow also remaining almost imperceptible.
A track such as Two Trains seems to present the band at their most calm, reflective and nuanced. The narrative (both lyrical and musical) unfolds so patiently that it almost seems to be a challenge to the audience. John McEntire of Tortoise has offered a typically unobtrusive but detailed approach to production here, respecting the band’s core values whilst adding light touches of his own. As the album’s title suggests, there is no raging against the dying of the light here. Fade offers a continuing warm glow, a slow burning sunset rather than a fizzling out. Who knows how long it could still last? Perhaps we really do need more Yo La Tengo albums after all.