Yo La Tengo have returned with This Stupid World, their first LP of new songs since 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On. Released on Matador Records, this collection of songs is an artfully constructed hotchpotch of material that grew out of jam sessions conducted by the trio over the past two years. Largely recorded live, without the external influence of producers or sound engineers, This Stupid World represents the trio back to their most raw and authentic.
After 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, the band’s sound settled significantly. In place of the crackling, moody guitar that was a signature to their aesthetic on albums such as Painful and Electr-o-pura, came soundscapes of wistful, spacious dreampop. In contrast, This Stupid World marks a return to the YLT of old: bold, experimental, cerebral, and non-conforming. Indeed, bassist James McNew spoke of the necessity of spontaneity in the band’s creative process for this album: that in each new song, “it’s all up for grabs. It’s always changing. It’s alive.”
Yo La Tengo’s best projects are remarkable in their ability to fuse sweet pop tunes with moments of the expertly harnessed aggression, and this album is no different. The opening track, ‘Sinatra Drive Breakdown,’ is a seven-minute ode to the band’s birthplace of Hoboken, New Jersey. Paranoid cries repeat over an incessant, macabre droning: “I see clearly how it ends / I see the moon rise as the sun descends.” The repeated evocation of the ‘I’ marks a return to the paranoid, solipsistic introspection that is often identifiable in their lyrics. Halfway through the track, Kaplan’s guitar suddenly spits and froths with vehemence, a sound of restless defiance which captures the Sturm and Drang that had been missing on previous albums. Similarly, on the churning, effervescent ‘Fallout,’ Kaplan and Co. search for a durée which is freed of temporal and spatial imprisonment of the ego: “It makes me sick, what’s in my mind / … I want to fall out of time.” Following a period of lengthy silent contemplation for the band, this is the triumphant sound of self-expression.
This Stupid World marks a divide between local, anxious interiority and the free, expansive world of the external. The album’s title track is a dark miasma of feedback fused with the trademark industrious drumming of Georgia Hubley. The lyrics, barely audible, reflect a turn toward utopian futurity which can only be reached by transcending the bleak reality of the here and now; one where connection and unity are possible: “…Reach for the skies. Better be none, and none will be. This stupid world is killing me.”
The slow, acoustic ballad that is typical to most YLT albums is a shining highlight. ‘Aselestine’ has shades of And Then Nothing’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49,’ a nod to Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novella, which explores the ontological insecurity that results from a world in which mass media obfuscates the boundaries between mediated and unmediated reality. This song is a similarly bittersweet acknowledgement of the desensitising effect of the screen, whereby emotions can only be made sense of through mediums like film and television. “A camera moves / a laugh track laughs / I cry for us,” are the lyrics Hubley plaintively croons over a set of simple chords.
This Stupid World is a reminder that there is still much to appreciate about Yo La Tengo. Although its experimentalism often borders on inaccessibility, it reiterates their ability to retreat back from the noise of everyday life and produce something heartfelt, original and true (to them, at least).
Image “Georgia + Ira” by Juan Manuel Fluxà is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.