After more than a quarter-century and 14 albums, the core members of Yo La Tengo have assumed the role of elder statesmen in the indie-rock universe, and fans who have stuck with them since 1986’s Ride the Tiger—or even since their 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One—will find few surprises on the band’s new album, Fade. Like 2009’s Popular Songs, Fade combines bite-sized, tuneful numbers that foreground Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s vocals with a handful of near-symphonic compositions that push the 10-minute mark. The difference here is concision and cohesion: While stopping short of the expansive, 15-minute instrumental that closed out Popular Songs, the album’s bookends, “Ohm” and “Before We Run,” give the band a chance to stretch their legs.
Fade‘s relative self-discipline is achieved in part through Yo La Tengo’s inaugural collaboration with musician/producer John McEntire, who’s established a track record of guiding eclectic, experimental artists in more user-friendly directions, as he did on Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga. In a recent interview, Kaplan acknowledged that with Fade, the band challenged themselves “to cut down on some of the sprawl.” The result is remarkably flexible, an album that should rub loyal fans the right way while welcoming newcomers into the YLT fold with a gentle hand.
Opening with the driving, uptempo anthem “Ohm,” Yo La Tengo pitches the album at a level of energy and conceptual breadth that stands out among the smaller, simpler offerings that follow. Lyrically, the song reads like a manifesto for a band that’s seasoned yet still vigorous: “But nothing ever stays the same/Nothing’s explained/Lose no more time,” Kaplan and Hubley harmonize, concluding the song with the repeated phrase, “‘Cause it’s been fun.” If the lyrics broach valediction or even existential doubt, the unwavering open-chord riff and shaker-egg percussion that underpin the melody evoke a propulsive forward motion. By its close, the track achieves the placid consistency of a mantra, though not without Kaplan etching a characteristically distortion-heavy solo onto its calm surface.
From there, the album contracts somewhat, delivering eight intimate, delicately articulated musings on romantic quandaries, from the plaintive, interrogatory “Is That Enough” to the pair of his-hers acoustic solos, Kaplan’s “I’ll Be Around” and Hubley’s “Cornelia and Jane.” Though Yo La Tengo has drawn frequent comparisons to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, the band more clearly echoes fellow husband/wife act Luna on songs such as “Well You Better,” wherein Kaplan’s almost-whispered vocals tip-toe across a shimmying, flirtatious guitar line. The standout “Stupid Things,” a five-minute, multi-layered jam, allows the band room for a generous instrumental build, languid verses, and an unhurried dénouement. Though the lyrics sometimes lapse into tired couplets (“It happens every day/And it takes my breath away”), the blend of voice and instruments is seamless, reminiscent of Yo La Tengo’s early work.
On closer “Before We Run,” the album circles back to the anthemic thrust of “Ohm,” adding string and horn layers that thicken the template explored on earlier tracks. Nonetheless, the band remains restrained even as Hubley fantasizes about “running away.” If Fade isn’t as far-out—lyrically, structurally, or emotionally—as, say, I Can Hear the Heart, it holds us tight within a sonic universe that enlivens as it comforts. In collaborating with McEntire, Yo La Tengo has found a format that accommodates their ever-adventurous musical excursions while beckoning new listeners unaccustomed to 15-minute instrumental soundscapes. That’s not just good business; it’s good rock.