Despite Yo La Tengo’s consistent avowal to not go into albums with a preconceived thread in mind, each of the few previews released into the band’s new album Fade – three songs, cover art, and one very chromatic music video – already suggested grander reflections. Even the cropping of the photograph from the album cover, featuring the band looking like a speck beneath the gigantic crown of a tree in Portland’s Overlook Park, frames a fresh and zoomed-out worldview — a feeling of being a minuscule part of something much larger.
Whatever their intentions may have been going in, Yo La Tengo has undeniably come out this time with an effort greater than the sum of its parts – and that’s not to say that any of its 10 tracks fails to live up to or exceed their lofty standards individually. Fade is the band’s most thematically unified album in at least 10 years, and almost certainly their most direct ever.
The aughts were Yo La Tengo’s decade to really exercise the freedom they had earned with the large handful of consistently great albums they’d accumulated in their many years together. Their 2006 album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, was an aptly-titled buffet of their abilities that brimmed with confidence – confidence in their economical pop game, in their Krautrock-rooted sprawls, and in their belief that their songcraft had matured to where they didn’t need a cohesive album to capture their listeners’ attention, hearts.
With 2009’s Popular Songs, however, there was more of an argument that they hadn’t reached the ever-feared dead zone of middle-aged creative dormancy — that they could dabble into orchestral arrangements for the first time and still squeeze enough care and urgency out of themselves to make it sound like more than a fun, or worse, desperate gimmick.
Now, past the temptation of shaping their albums rough-around-the-edges just because they are Yo La Tengo, Yo La Tengo have turned the corner on a new decade. As the heart-prodding crest of the melody on opening track “Ohm” repeats, “’Cause this is it for all we know / So say goodnight to me / ‘Cause it’s been fun,” it’s the first candid moment of many. Their range is still obvious, but it’s no longer the focus. All of Fade’s sides, be it tranquil guitar fuzz ambiance or sky-reaching violins, still reflect the same band living in the same time and place – that wasn’t always the case in years past.
“Ohm” serves as a thesis statement of sorts for Fade, prefacing an abandonment of the lyrical ambiguity and looseness longtime fans have become accustomed to. It also sets into motion an essential recurring element in the structure of Fade: a distant drone or hum beneath almost every track. On “I’ll Be Around”, frontman Ira Kaplan channels Nick Drake and half-whispers professions (“I’ll be around to pick up your fall”) over dancing acoustic picks and a dial tone-like base layer of synthetic sound.
It’s also acceptable to consider here – more so than with any prior Yo La Tengo album – that Kaplan isn’t only toasting to 30 successful years with his band, but also to his marriage to Georgia Hubley. The bandleaders’ relationship has long been a seductive point of interest for fans to giddily read into with every new forthright lyric, but until now, they’ve carefully refrained from letting it take on too central of a focus in their albums. When Hubley returns Kaplan’s “All that matters for me is you” on “Is That Enough” with “Take me there, it’s only us” on “Before We Run”, it’s revealing of the kind of openness that carries more weight on Fade than they’ve ever allowed it to before.
Produced by John McEntire of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, who has manned other later-career triumphs such as Broken Social Scene’s Forgiveness Rock Record, Fade comes together as one of Yo La Tengo’s most refreshingly forward efforts in both sound and matter. It may have been a while since they’ve taken a step back before taking on a new project, but it’s a step long earned, and one they surely owed to themselves.
Essential Tracks: “Ohm”, “I’ll Be Around”, and “Before We Run”
Feature artwork by Steven Fiche: