This Stupid World (Yo La Tengo) – music review

Yo La Tengo have been faithfully plugging along for nearly 40 years, with a new release every few years offering their assessment of what was going on in the world around us. For instance, in 2020 as the pandemic was kicking all of our asses, the trio re-assembled in their practice space following social distancing guidelines, set up a microphone and set to “playing formlessly,” according to Ira Kaplan writing on their bandcamp page and avoiding the word “improvising,” resulting in the band’s 5-track instrumental release, We Have Amnesia Sometimes, which some said was reminiscent of ambient music. But doesn’t that title get at that universal brain-fog that seemed to grip the entire culture at that moment?

In the title track of their 17th album, Yo La Tengo have embraced a cautious, sometimes grim, form of optimism, stating that “This stupid world/it’s killing me,” before coming to terms with the fact that “This stupid world/is all we have.” In the 9 tracks captured on This Stupid World, they regroup to reflect on the current state of reality, and it’s feeling a bit rocky. In that bandcamp note, Kaplan suggested that most of their songwriting in the last 25 years has grown from their formless jams, where they play until musical ideas surface and start to solidify into songs. While they’ve often worked with outside producers in the past, this time they kept things in house, and everything here has that sense of immediacy that’s only possible when musicians are playing live together in the studio, although there are plenty of embellishments and added music nuance.

Original members – Georgia Hubley (drums and vocals) and Ira Kaplan (vocals, guitars, keyboards) – started the band in ’84, James McNew (bass, guitars, keys, and vocals) rounded out the band in ’92, and over the years they’ve managed to hold on to that same early R.E.M. Murmur—era influence that also shaped bands like Pavement and Camper Van Beethoven. “Fallout” opens with ringing guitar chords and driving rhythm that conjures that golden era of indie alternative rock, while the lyric wants to escape reality, because “Everyday it hurts to look/I’d turn away if only I could.” The noise and chaos of modern life are given sonic expression in the droning, feedback that dominates songs like “Tonight’s Episode” and the title track, a nod to shoegaze influences. In the opening rocker, “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” that angsty-rage comes through what the band’s bio calls “spontaneous guitar,” which feels like someone has given up playing the traditional chords and melody and is just attacking the fret board as if to wring its neck on what passes for the solo section.

In “Brain Capers,” the noisy aspects are focused, more controlled with layers of sound aided by loops and a mix of voices, while the lyric engages a bit of escapism as Alice Cooper, Ray Davies (The Kinks), and Rick Moranis provide guidance in the form of an earworm. But the vulnerable heart at the center of this album is captured in the folky alternative rock of “Aselestine,” with Hubley’s gentle female vocal mixing nicely with the acoustic guitars and synths, as the lyric reckons with the passing of the seasons: “One day walking/walking upon leaves/And then snow.” Similarly, the more percussive alt/pop of “Until It Happens” suggests that we have all kinds theories and philosophical ideas about what happens when we die, but all that changes when it gets personal, and is suddenly real for you. And that intimate tone flows into “Apology Letter,” wondering about the possibility of forgiveness since we have trouble finding the right words to admit we were wrong.

The close out the set with a return to a more electronically altered and enhanced sound, synths and rhythmic loops accompany Hubley’s vocal acknowledgement that “Burdens rise/Avert your eyes/The pain creeps in anyhow.” And there you have it, reality is such that it often leaves people reeling from the sense of loss and uncertainty: “You feel alone/Friends are all gone.” But like the rest of This Stupid World, in time we’re reminded that this is all we have, so we have to “Keep wiping the dust from your eyes,” because there are “So many signs,” and “I must be blind/How few of them I see.” What we all have is this moment, this now, and as the album closes with a series of haunting, up-lifting synth strokes it suggests the possibility of beauty still to come.

The Fire Note staff
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