Far from content to rest on their laurels as an institution in the world of indie rock, Yo La Tengo continue to challenge themselves on their 12th album, Popular Songs. What makes the album work is the tension between the band’s ongoing embrace of conventional pop song structures and their drive to experiment with novel soundscapes and genre influences. These Songs are deceptive in their simplicity: Opener “Here to Fall,” in the vein of the Flaming Lips’s “Fight Test,” slowly emerges as a meditation on the mysteries of contemporary romance, while the defiant noise-pop anthem “Nothing to Hide” brings the album’s broader themes of self-deception into sharper, more explicit relief.
No matter how straightforward an individual line may scan, songs like “When It’s Dark” and “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” dance around the edge of an abyss. On the album’s most focused songs, the band reflects this dichotomy in their arrangements by expanding their sonic palette (“Here to Fall” surprises by relegating the electric guitar to the background and, in its place, using a distorted, ominous keyboard figure and sampled string section) and by bringing in elements of country and a deconstructed brand of funk (on standout “Periodically Triple or Double”) into the mix. That these experiments hit their mark is a testament to how shrewdly Yo La Tengo has crafted their aesthetic over the years: They know exactly how hard and in what direction to push.
The album’s main liability, then, is in its odd sequencing, with all three of the epic-length, proggish songs (one of the band’s trademarks) grouped together at the end of the record. While closer “And the Glitter Is Gone” finds Ira Kaplan freaking right the hell out on his guitar as expected, the more delicate textures of “The Fireside” are more fragile and, frankly, interminable. If the sequencing throws the album off balance, it at least makes it easier to skip the outsized songs at the end and focus on the terrific pop that makes up the first portion of Popular Songs.