Yo La Tengo This Stupid World
Each Yo La Tengo album is like a visit from an old friend. They’re typically amicable and interesting, but also a little guarded and a little mysterious. Their most recent visit, though—This Stupid World—is heavy. Our friends are world weary, a little exasperated, and maybe a bit ornery. It’s not often they speak so directly about the state of the world (though, admittedly, I didn’t dive deep into 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On). They’re usually quite polite, mostly ignoring the controversial topics of money, religion, and politics in favor of ruminations on relationships or narratives from their own little corners of the world. The tribulations we all face today are impossible to ignore, though.
Album opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” sets the course, with some familiar themes: a krautrock bounce from drummer Georgia Hubley; an infectious, pulsing bassline from James McNew; and the melodic buzzsaw of Ira Kaplan’s guitar. But the heaviness is present from the jump. The reference to their the old Hoboken haunts in the title offers little levity. The outbursts from Kaplan’s guitar are neither exuberant nor cathartic; they’re searching, questioning, occasionally yelping. Kaplan and Hubley barely seem to be holding on as they sing the mournful refrain, “Until we all break, until we all break.”
Yo La Tengo (photo by Kate Hoos)
The terrific first single, “Fallout,” is classic Yo La Tengo, but lyrically, you can’t help but ache right along with Kaplan: “Every day it hurts to look/I’d turn away if only I could/I wanna fall out of time/Hold back, unwind.” Even with the familiar driving rhythm and fuzzy guitar strumming, there’s still a pall over the proceedings. We’ll get no respite yet.
McNew offers a Motown-esque bass hook for “Tonight’s Episode,” but it’s the only light amid the swirling guitar noise and motorik rhythm. His voice cuts through, clear and deep, and a slight, wry smile appears as he intones, “Ask me nice, whatever you like, I’ll show you a yo-yo trick/I can Walk the Dog/I can Around the World/I can rock that cradle, too.” But, somehow even the imagery of various yo-yo configurations feels ominous within the context of the music and the record as a whole. What’s he talking about? Kaplan enters with beautifully picked acoustic guitar that, even its melodiousness, somehow adds to it to the anxiety.
The clouds start to part a bit with a slight chuckle from Hubley before she brings her soothing, spectral voice to “Aselestine.” At home as one of the great ballads in the Yo La Tengo canon, her voice seems to surround your head and ears. Lyrically, we step away a bit from the outside world, addressing a more insular relationship. It is a much-needed break, even in its sadness.
The record settles in a bit from here, with the ever-so-slight Latin touches of “Until it Happens” and the watery atmosphere of “Apology Letter,” featuring Kaplan’s voice at the fore, always a welcome sound—a little hiccupy, surprisingly rich, and distinctly heartfelt whenever he sings about relationships as he does here. He is charmingly self deprecating: “Then, I got mad ’cause you got mad/Another one of my delightful quirks/What a jerk.” But, given the perspectives on the outside world that make up a lot of This Stupid World, it’s hard not to wonder if these words can also apply to our societal relationships, particularly when he sings, “If I were to smile at you/would you smile at me?”
Yo La Tengo (photo by Kate Hoos)
We slide back into the darkness with the positively stellar title track. The rhythm section provide a relentless, trancelike thump under the guitar drone. “This stupid world is killing me/this stupid world is all we have,” Kaplan and Hubley sing high above, not evoking a dreamlike quality but an untethered distance from the chaos below. The words are a lament, a reminder, a caution. The band begins recede further into the ether on the final track, “Miles Away.” Processed drums groove warmly, washes of guitar create an ambient landscape as the mood shifts slightly; it’s still dark, it’s still tense, but Hubley offers a balm: “Ease your mind/bide your time/hold your thoughts for now.” Another couple short verses, and she’s gone. The drums drop out soon, too. A few notes via guitar or keyboard effects and now everyone is gone. Miles away. Just like we’d like to be sometimes in this stupid world.
This Stupid World is out now via Matador.