Album Review: Yo La Tengo – This Stupid World

[Matador; 2023]

For some of us, time is measured in babies born, jobs worked, hobbies indulged in, and in our awareness of the ghost of our own mortality. We measure our successes against our failures and continue on, living as we can and loving as we’re able. But what happens when we try to break free of the cyclical nature of chronology, when we look beyond the usual seconds and minutes and hours to find meaning in the passing of our finite time on earth? Do we howl at life’s cruel strategies, or do we see them as markers of an expansive ocean of history? Are our perspectives linked to past experiences and the emotions we associate with them, or are there other metrics by which we might define the success of our lives?

Yo La Tengo have addressed these questions multiple times over their career as a way of making sense of the various intimate and universal struggles we cope with and tumble into every day. On their latest album, the self-produced This Stupid World, the band – still comprising the core trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew – confront different aspects of time and the way it leaves its imprint on anyone lost in its stream of influence. And, in the wake of that chronological upheaval, they look at how our viewpoint can be altered, fostering frustration and anger in some while leaving others with a renewed sense that these obstacles are merely landmarks in a much broader series of experiences. Yo La Tengo approach these questions through the lens of friendship and shared musical histories, and while time can often be seen as an enemy, the band would rather view it as the thing which brokers the foundation of countless relationships and the love and ache those connections can offer.

Legacy also plays a large part in how the band approach This Stupid World, using it to recall specific moments from their past while also speaking to a broader historical perspective. Just look at opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown”, a noisy and combustible jam that blends their earliest jangle-pop origins with denser, burlier indie rock theatrics which manifested in later releases. The song is a testament to their continued relevance and acts as a flipbook of almost 40 years of musical creation. There’s an almost Velvet Underground vibe to it, beautiful and convoluted and raucous in the way it treats the trio’s past as fodder for current inspiration – and allows for a reassessment of past impulses. It’s the perfect way to break into the album as it positions them as encyclopedic narrators and as individuals attempting to speak to dimly lit memories half-buried in their collective subconscious.

Following track “Fallout” implores us to “fall back out of time / turn back, unwind”, the words caught in a web of propulsive guitar lines, roughed-up bass, and a hissing rhythm that recalls Painful-era discord. Time is approached as being fluid in the song, with Kaplan providing reassurances rather than dispirited acceptance. “Aselestine” is a gentle ramble through regret and frustration, spry guitars plucked over fuzzy atmospherics and Hubley’s voice a soft light on which to focus. There’s an affectionate sway to its remorse before we’re given something to hold onto at its conclusion: “Push the pin into the map / and I find you, Aselestine”.

We’re led on a detour through a Can-inspired opening on “Brain Capers” before distortion overwhelms the surrounding area, filling each second with melted vocals, spiky guitar rhythms, and motorik percussion that results in a loose but controlled chaos. “Tonight’s Episode” lures you in with a brief false tranquility that gives way to what is ostensibly a noisy ambient track with vocals lurking somewhere in the back of the room, its surface level disturbances pointing to deeper movements and ideas lurking well below its exterior.

There’s a joy in hearing the band tackle these complicated moments, still ferocious and eager after all these years. On the title track, they thread all these intimate narratives and communal themes into a bruising, devastatingly harsh pop song. Anger at what could have been and affection for what is – and love for those around them – blur together and create a contentment that few artists have the ability to examine with any insight. They’ve created a track which is boisterous yet unassuming, wrapped in blankets of thick dissonance and industrial clangor, unafraid to stumble around in unprocessed emotions. We’re left with a collection of dull aches and fitful happiness, holding tight to an acute awareness imparted to those who understand all that time can rend asunder, as we’re told: “This stupid world, it’s killing me / this stupid world, is all we have.”

Yo La Tengo feel more alive on This Stupid World than they have in years – which isn’t to say that their more recent efforts were lacking in any way. The songs here just crackle and spark with an innate energy and unpredictability not heard since 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. It might have something to do with the fact that these new songs were all built around the band playing live together in the studio. It’s not all amplitude and heightened tempos, however. Calmer environments play just as important a role on this album as do its more muscular settings. Even in the welcome moments when the band veers off-course and experiments a bit more, you can still hear the focused dynamics linking them and their music in ways both familiar and unexpected.

Looking back on their time together, Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew seem pleased with how it all turned out, finding that all the wonderfully volatile emotions shared and offered have shaped them in both their personal and professional lives. There are plenty of “fuck you”s to time on This Stupid World, and the experiences expressed aren’t always those you’d want to remember with any clarity, but the band just won’t allow themselves to wallow in that darkness – it feels anathema to them. Somehow, it always has.

Nowhere is this more evident than on album closer “Miles Away”, where Hubley sings: “Ease your mind, bide your time / hold those thoughts for now”. Possessing an optimism drawn from a heightened understanding of the good and bad things in our lives, the song shows us that resilience in the face of struggle and the affection of those around us is what defines the time we’re given. Over muddied guitars, droning melodies, and gauzy vocals (and maybe a bit of hopefulness), she offers a path forward, telling us to “keep wiping the dust from your eyes”. It might seem impossible at times, but just keep going and remember to keep your friends close.