For nearly 40 years, Yo La Tengo have been carrying on one of the great conversations in rock & roll history, welcoming us into their little idyll of pastoral noise, mumbled epiphanies, and sublime cover song choices. Even a diehard fan might struggle to pass a multiple-choice exam where you have to match a list of their song titles with the album they were on, but that sense of familiarity and constancy imbues every new release with the feeling of checking in with old friends. What’s more, their attention to detail means that every LP always has its own subtly unique character.
This Stupid World — their first LP of new songs since 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On, and second since 2013’s Fade — has a mood that makes it feel distinct in their catalog. As its title implies, it’s openly downcast, tinged with images of mortality and the struggle to make something out of whatever time we have while we’re here. “Prepare to die/Prepare yourself while there’s still time,” Ira Kaplan sings like an indie-rock grim reaper on “Until it Happens,” a tetchy acoustic song with a droning organ that sounds like a polite warning siren. The seven-minute album opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” named after a street in the band’s birthplace of Hoboken, New Jersey, is similarly unsettled, at once violent and lovely, like it can’t decide which of those impulses to trust, as Kaplan sings “I see clearly how it ends/I see the moon rise as the sun descends.” On “Fallout,” they pile on opaque droning beauty in a way that’s been second-nature to them for ages, but when Kaplan sings, “It makes me sick, what’s in my mind/It’s so hard to react in time,” what might be a nice autumnal zone-out starts feeling like the sound of people coming tastefully unglued. That song is followed by bassist James McNew‘s “Tonight’s Episode,” a sardonic psychedelic call and response about losing your mind and doing yo-yo tricks that’s one of the more bracingly odd things they’ve ever released.
Yo La Tengo have always done a nice job of playing with depressive rock idioms. One of their first classic songs, 1989’s “Drug Test,” was a Neil Youngian image of apathy that turned the phrase “I hate feeling the way I feel today” into a drowsily anthemic refrain; more recently there was “Shades of Blue,” a sweetly bummed song that sounded like Velvet Underground doing a blue-eyed soul ballad. It’s hard to think of a formative sad-guy icon they haven’t covered at some point — from John Cale to Ray Davies to Roky Erickson to Robert Smith to Alex Chilton. But on This Stupid World, the forlorn ambience is more lived-in and close-to-home than it’s ever seemed in the past.
That sensibility gives everything here a little more urgency. The hulking noise-mantra title track becomes a necessary exercise in brain-emptying, their voices joining together to float in shy ecstasy against the music’s meditative inward-driving grind. Drummer Georgia Hubley has sung many slow, fragile acoustic songs over the years, but her vocal on “Aselestine” has an unguarded patience that makes it among her most moving performances. They end with the long, strange “Miles Away,” which has a surprisingly harsh electronic beat and a perfect balance of wintry sonics and searching melody. “You feel alone/Friends are all gone,” Hubley sings, ushering us into tomorrow’s impending doom with matter-of-fact tenderness. We’re all going to wind up there someday. A record like this makes easing towards the abyss feel a little less painful.