It’s 2013 and Yo La Tengo are putting out their 13th album. Depending on your personal beliefs (or lack thereof) about the number 13, this could either be a very lucky or very unlucky record for them. When you consider their storied career and some of the most amazing collections of songs therein, you’d think the pressure might be higher. But of course when you hit your 13th record it’s likely you’ve already “peaked” and by this time fan expectations have fallen to the point where making a quality but not necessarily original album will satisfy most of the fan base. You listen to the last couple YLT records, 2009’s Popular Songs and 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and they fit well into the classification of the band’s “late period” recordings. What does that mean exactly? Well, the trio hasn’t exactly scaled back their energy in spite of their age and longevity, but they have embraced a more mature sensibility when it comes to composing their songs and arranging their sequences on records. The band’s earliest material was exciting and beloved because of its unpredictability and experimentalism during a time when not a lot of other bands were doing the same. They could go from serene calm to a roar in seconds, and look good doing it. These days, they favor structure and pacing, which means the overall flow of their albums is comfortable and intelligent, bringing its own set of benefits. You look at the track listing for Popular Songs and notice that the final three songs are between 9 and 16 minutes in length apiece, while nothing else that comes before it even reaches the 6 minute mark. So they saved the prog rock experiments for last, and that’s beneficial for fans that favor that side of them over everything else.
Looking at the track lengths for this new album Fade tells you astonishingly little, and in this particular case that’s a good thing. The two longest songs on the album, which are bookended as the first and last things you hear, both fail to cross the seven minute mark. With more than a couple 10+ minute jams on the last couple albums, the shorter song lengths and minimal 10 tracks here shrink this new record down to 46 minutes, making it their shortest full length in over 20 years. What does it all mean? Well, the band is getting more economical, likely in the hope that any extra fat is trimmed away in favor of something purer. There definitely is a feeling of balance and restraint across the record, mostly in how they peel away some of their sharper or rougher edges in favor of soothing calm and meditation. As 2003’s Summer Sun was a lackadaisical and sometimes lazy album built for life’s lush but quieter moments, this album feels similar in tone but with significantly less bloat. It also begs to be compared to Yo La Tengo’s much-hearalded masterpiece, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, even though it’s missing the gritty rock songs that broke up some of the softer melodies, which kept you on your toes. There’s precision and weight prominently on display throughout this album, which might make it seem like one of the band’s less important efforts, but just because it’s one of their more insular and introspective long players doesn’t mean it loses strength and excellence.
One of Fade‘s biggest assets is how it can give you the impression that a melody is smooth and simplistic when in fact it’s anything but. Opening track “Ohm” establishes a nice groove over its nearly seven minute run time, and if you’re not paying close enough attention the squall of noise that arrives near the end will sneak up on you in the best possible way. “Two Trains” and “I’ll Be Around” are equally deceptive, their lush acoustic pleasantries thrown off course slightly thanks to a carefully picked but wayward electric guitar and some day-glo synth work. If you’re in search of the one song that best encapsulates the sound and the rush of feelings generated by this record, you can’t do much better than album centerpiece “Stupid Things.” The track was inspired in part by some health issues that Ira Kaplan dealt with somewhat recently, and embraces the impermanence of life and love as we grapple with whatever threads we have at our disposal. It’s ultimately a happy song and celebrates life’s little moments, but with a certain amount of unease at being a flawed and vulnerable human being. The guitar and strings make it beautiful and life-affirming, while the mechanical, motorik beat seeks to remove the emotion from the otherwise impassioned melody. It’s working on that subtle pattern of purposeful sabotage that helps separate Yo La Tengo from any similar-sounding peers and provokes an unintended reaction that keeps the active listener on their toes.
If you’re the sort of person that has to figure out exactly where Fade fits among Yo La Tengo’s storied and rather excellent catalogue, perhaps you’re thinking a bit too hard about a band that likes to play with and confound expectations. They’ve explored such a wide variety of sounds and themes over the last 20+ years that it’s become less about one album or song being better than the others and more about whether or not they’ve hit the creative wall. Are they still making interesting, exciting and good music worth listening to and buying? Absolutely. That’s more than can be said about 95% of artists with similar longevity and discography. The new album may be the most serene and relaxed of their career thus far, but by no means should you interpret these slower and shorter tracks as a sign of aging nor the album title as a suggestion that they should slowly drift off into the ether of history. It is instead at once reflective and reflexive, pondering life’s big questions while also keeping the proverbial wolves at bay. They may not be getting any better, which is all but impossible with the lengthy passage of space and time, but they’re definitely not getting any worse. Such consistency is more of a comfort than anything else, the knowledge that no matter what angle they approach each new record with, there’s some assurance the songs will still be good. Based on what they’ve presented with this album, one can only hope they’re willing to keep this wild ride going for another 20+ years.