February marked twenty years since the release of Yo La Tengo’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, quietly redefining our notions of the relationship between rock and romance with its own hushed aesthetic of shy equanimity. Throughout the band’s ninth album, the listener is drawn in by its tender, delicate atmosphere, taking the romanticism of some of their earlier albums. Be it post-breakup teen or avid record-collector, its listeners have doubtless entered a world of breathless, loving intimacy. This is the world of founding members and teenage sweethearts Ira Kaplin and Georgia Hubley. Two decades on from this album’s release, it is worth taking a moment to consider their genius, complemented by long-time bassist James McNew, and appreciate the sound of one of indie-rock’s most reclusive love affairs.
And Then Nothing is an album which perfectly encapsulates the withdrawn, secretive dynamic of Ira and Georgia’s early years together. The cover features a work from surrealist photographer Gregory Crewdson, depicting a solitary figure drawn to an extra-terrestrial light, casting a hazy glow on a suburban street. The photo casts its light on the whole album as the band’s ethereal sound is played out on a stage of cosy suburbia. Caught up in a world of muted organs and brushed cymbal taps, the album settles into a liminal state between comfortable dreaminess and intangible unfamiliarity. Ira and Co’s sound is one of My Bloody Valentine’s astral guitar feedback, the ambient mystique later seen in Grouper and the raw talent and eclecticism of their main influence, The Velvet Underground. Yet it somehow exists within its own space – its own world.
Turning away from their previous noise-rock, shoegaze sound, Yo La Tengo expand on the sound of songs like ‘Green Arrow’ off their previous LP, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, capturing the tranquillity of suburban twilight. In “Last Days of Disco” Ira reminisces on a high-school dance, one he spent with Georgia: “Saw you at a party/ You asked me to dance/ Said music was great for dancing”. He touches upon the heart-aching wistfulness of bygone innocence, those endless summers when lonely high-schoolers revel in their own solitude. “And the song said, ‘Don’t be lonely’ / It makes me lonely / I hear it and I’m lonely more and more”. The album is filled with these narratives. Kaplan’s unassuming delivery lets their short declaratives sit, allowing the hushed instrumentals to create their own sparse effect.
Relationships within rock bands call to mind those of Fleetwood Mac: frenzied, oppressive and toxic. But Ira and Georgia happily existed in their own bubble. As a dialogue between the two, And Then Nothing takes on an almost confessional quality. So tentative to discuss the romantic side of their relationship publicly, one hesitates to automatically coin this album as an overt expression of undying love. This is particularly the case when taking into account the reception it received; in an interview with The New York Times in which Georgia was questioned about the possibility of her having kids, she brusquely replied “that’s none of your business”. In listening to And Then Nothing, the listener plays the eavesdropper to this uninterrupted peace. Once settled into their soft lullabies and ballads, it’s like taking a seat right in the front row, just outside the dim spotlight of their music and gazing in on a relationship they are willing to share with only their most patient of listeners. “You say that all we do is fight and I think to myself, gee I don’t know if that’s true,” Ira muses in a brief aside over a backdrop muted guitars on “The Crying of Lot G”: “Maybe I’m out of my mind, maybe I’m blocking out the truth. But it seems just like a little thing, and I can’t shut up.” Georgia’s hushed voice is then heard in the outro, once again ushering in a dreamlike sound: “The way that I feel / When you laugh / Is like laughing.” It feels like a privilege to be a part of their shared ecstasy for only a moment. The two complement each other, both within their music outside of it.
On “Our Way to Fall,” Ira recounts the first time he met Georgia in his typically coy, matter-of-fact tone. Here, there’s no need for extreme vocals of strangled passion to demonstrate feeling. He just says it. The rest is to be figured out by the listener. “I remember a summer’s day / I remember walking up to you / I remember my face turned red / And I remember staring at my feet.” A feeling that most awkward teenage boys can identify with, as we are taken right back to the couple’s first moments in Maxwell’s bar. The brushed percussion and the soft organs combine to envelope the ears of the listener. “Cause we’re on our way,” the two croon as it comes to its dying moments, “We’re on our way to fall in love.”
Over the course of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Yo La Tengo welcome listeners in on their own self-contained world through whispered affection. With the album’s closer, “Night Falls on Hoboken”, the trio present one last flourish, seventeen minutes of feedback-driven quietude; all recorded in a single take which took two days to perfect. “Come on, let’s leave our misery / And crawl toward where we want to be / Can’t we try? Can’t we try?” Ira sings. Be it walking along a street in the dead of night, or lying in a field gazing into space, this is a sound which never fails to bring you to a different place. The track winds down and it really does feel like night falls, as another chapter in the hushed world of Ira and Georgia comes to a close.
Image: Matador Records via Wikimedia