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Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World

Yo La Tengo: <em>This Stupid World</em>

To fully dig the manifold charms of This Stupid World, it’s best to take a single step back into Yo La Tengo’s 38 years-and-counting catalog. In July 2020, amid that first summer of extreme pandemic disorientation, the trio surprised devotees not only with a new Bandcamp page but also with a fresh album, captured at their Hoboken practice space just weeks earlier and offered up like a timely postcard from a friend you’ve missed—we’re OK, and we hope you’re OK, too.

Still, this wasn’t some coddling batch of covers or a soporific balm for the common weal. Instead, We Have Amnesia Sometimes gathered five casually beautiful improvisations, set decidedly on edge: a snapshot of listless and helpless terror. Really, Yo La Tengo’s entire enviable path owes to that impulse to put their shared moment to tape. Whether triumphantly covering Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” after 9/11 or dreaming of the stars and baseball from somewhere in suburbia, they have always played what they felt, sans commercial master plan or artistic safety net. Yo La Tengo are, after all, a band that would rather write new music for commercials than cash in on past glories.

Yo La Tengo

Forty Years In, Yo La Tengo Are Still Making It Up as They Go

On This Stupid World, Yo La Tengo are ready to sing again, to shake free of Amnesia’s uneasy torpor and charge ahead by reimagining and recharging some of the best parts of their history. Their mass of albums have collectively done a little of almost everything, from samba and soul to raw noise and regal country. For these nine tracks, they key on two specialties: Mostly there are the ironclad, soft but steely rippers that perhaps no band does better. And then, at just the right time, Yo La Tengo deliver extended astral jams that feel like invitations to disappear. Where other Yo La Tengo albums have often felt discursive, This Stupid World feels focused and lean, the work of a band that needs to tell you something now.

Yo La Tengo begin with that electrifying first category of rock songs, slicing straight into a galvanizing romp about the ruin that is sure to come. At the start of “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” Georgia Hubley and James McNew lock into a rubbery motorik throb, pushing against or easing off the accelerator as if navigating freeway traffic. Hubley and husband Ira Kaplan coo over the rhythm, their tuneful near-whispers fluttering like pillowcases on a clothesline.

But then there’s Kaplan’s scabrous guitar, which spends all seven minutes turning the nice little melody inside out and upside down, until all that’s left is a pile of rusted scrap metal. When he reaches the mid-song solo, he lunges at a few ragged chords, gives up, and then lashes out at individual notes, as if trying to remember how they fit together. He finally finds the riff and crawls back toward the song, resolving this riveting little melodrama. “Until we all break/Until we all break down,” Kaplan and Hubley harmonize again toward the end, the pieces of this anthem of oblivion slowly drifting apart.

This feeling of resignation powers much of This Stupid World, no matter how lively the bulk of its songs may sound. “Every day, it hurts to look,” Kaplan sings early into “Fallout,” one of their most effortlessly magnetic songs ever. “I’d turn away if only I could.” The trouble is everywhere, as inescapable as polluted air. And it’s not just outside: Kaplan laments his inability to overcome his ego during the wonderfully bittersweet “Apology Letter.” Irreparable destruction and inevitable death linger as miasmas, like when grief catches Hubley by surprise on TV during her lovely country sigh, “Aselestine.” Kaplan advocates for a sort of Swedish death cleaning of the mind above the warped canter of “Until It Happens,” a cautionary tale for those of us who sometimes want to believe bad things are only other people’s problems.

Even the McNew-led “Tonight’s Episode” playfully inveighs against a faddish world of self-help gurus and know-it-all advisers. Its chants of “guacamole” and games played with a yo-yo might feel like doggerel, but he’s just doing what he can to hold it together. “No need to cast the I Ching,” he sings like he’s sharing his own secret advice, noise ripping like a gale behind him. “Let the night astound/I don’t have to think.” If Yo La Tengo were on the edge when they cut Amnesia, the last three years have caused them to slip over its lip. Maybe the abyss isn’t yet in plain view, but reports from its depths are coming up more quickly now.

Despite all the fretting, This Stupid World exudes a loveable lightness, the byproduct of a band rooted in a triangle of trust and camaraderie since McNew joined 30 years ago. Catch, for instance, Hubley’s near-hidden giggle as the amplifiers whirr to life at the start of “Aselestine.” The sadness is easier when you’ve got friends around, it seems to say. You can hear that solidarity in “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” too, as Hubley and McNew stick with the rhythm while Kaplan wrestles through that amplifier turmoil. When he’s ready to sing, they lock back into shared softness.

The temptation to brand This Stupid World with a superlative or triumphant tagline is strong—Yo La Tengo’s best album in at least a decade (true), their most consistently compelling rock songs in years (ditto), a new triumph of indie rock’s old guard (facts). But such reductive critical capstones feel wrong for the steadfast march of Yo La Tengo, a band that’s been so indispensable for so long because they love making music together exactly how and when they want. Releasing a new album every two years or so for almost as long as the internet has existed, they have never indulged the illusion of scarcity by disappearing for a while, only to climb aboard the comeback circuit.

This Stupid World is just a particularly timely chapter in the modest saga of indie rock’s most unassuming institution. Its songs capture not only the darkness so many of us feel with each waking day but also the impulse to keep waking, to keep going. “This stupid world, it’s killing me,” the trio finally offers as one on the title track, a mighty shoegaze wonder where distortion and feedback thread together like a warm blanket. “This stupid world, it’s all we have.” It’s a mantra shared among pals holding each other up, now extended to the world beyond their cozy Hoboken studio. They know how this thing ends, and they play on anyway.

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Yo La Tengo: This Stupid World

$36 at Rough Trade
$35 at Amazon

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