Sixteenth album sees New Jersey trio reverting to their signature sound, consolidating their position as alternative treasures
It’s incredible to think that Yo La Tengo are approaching their 40th year of existence. It’s a milestone usually associated with acts of a more heritage nature rather than a cult indie rock act that still evades commercial success (no matter how much their music is adored and respected). They’ve built up a truly magnificent body of work over those four decades and 16th studio album This Stupid World sees them further consolidate their position as alternative treasures.
We last heard from them in 2018 when they released There’s A Riot Going On, a relative outlier of sorts that saw them occupy more ambient, abstracted and instrumental territory but This Stupid World sees them revert to their signature sound, and as a result should go down overwhelming well with long term fans (and it might even win them some new admirers). One difference this time round is that, for the first time, the band produced and recorded the album themselves. It kind of makes sense therefore that it’s one of the most Yo La Tengo sounding Yo La Tengo albums.
It includes nine tracks that affirm their longstanding musical identity while gently exploring new ideas and approaches. It certainly bears some resemblances to their other albums in structure and style (possessing a longer opening track and also closing with two seven minute plus tracks) but there’s also a freshness that makes it stand on its own terms.
Opening track Sinatra Drive Breakdown features typically discordant guitar reconfigurations from Ira Kaplan over a gently motorik beat, very much the sound of the Yo La Tengo musical engine being fired up for another circuit. Fallout has a similar sense of familiarity to it, all fuzzy guitars and melodic shapes. It’s like The Byrds as viewed through an alternative, 1990s guitar prism. It could easily slot into any of their albums. Bassist James McNew only usually handles vocals on the occasional track and his contribution on This Stupid World comes with Tonight’s Episode. It’s an agile, fun, musically inventive workout that comes with call and reply vocals.
Georgia Hubley’s beautifully doleful, sleepy vocals have become a key feature on all Yo La Tengo and they do so here also on Aselestine. “The drugs don’t do what they said they’d do” she quietly confides in what may be the most affecting moment on the album. Apology Letter contains a similar surveying of personal feelings, with Kaplan softly enquiring “if I were to smile at you would you smile at me?”. It’s another perfectly formed moment that serves as a reminder that, amid the turned up, imposing guitars, they have a special ability to also write songs of quiet tenderness and poignancy. The guitar dynamics do arrive, most notably on Brain Capers which is more abrasive and comes with a somewhat unexpected warped My Bloody Valentine feel.
There’s still more in the way of variety. Until It Happens is an altogether looser and more intimate affair with its uneven percussive patterns and lopsided aesthetic and Miles Away sounds more introverted and lost, a dreamy slow-paced closer featuring Hubley on vocals. John Peel once said of The Fall that they were “always the same, always different” and listening to This Stupid World it feels equally appropriate to Yo La Tengo. Let’s hope we can enjoy their wonderfully enriching music for many more years to come.