BY JORDAN MAINZER
It’s better to burn out than to fade away. So goes an aging rocker’s lament, one that has transcended Neil Young’s original lyric and appeared in many a cultural touchstone, from Jack Black’s hilarious diss of Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in High Fidelity to Kurt Cobain’s infamous suicide note to the way LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy lost his edge. The idea of agin, and losing your cool-guy status is near the top of the rock n’ roller anxiety list –and indie rock gods Yo La Tengo are no exception. With their thirteenth studio album, aptly and ironically titled Fade, the veteran trio has made a quiet, but assured statement of purpose that accurately claims: we can still play this game.
Utter confidence differentiates Fade’s first track, “Ohm” from similar classic YLT fuzzed out pop songs such as “From a Motel 6” or “Cherry Chapstic“. The seven-minute track begins: “Sometimes the bad guys go right on top / Sometimes the good guys lose / We try not to lose our hearts, not to lose our minds.” To hear this from a 1980s YLT or an up-and-coming band today would be appropriate, yet clichéd. To hear it from today’s YLT is a borderline cocky reflection on their successful, yet rocky path as a band. The opening lines appropriately set up the rest of the song, one that proclaims uncertainty as the norm and one that reveals YLT as comfortable in their own skin.
Even though it lacks the quintessential 15+ minute song, Fade is still classic YLT : varied, mixing lo-fi, catchy indie rock with old-timey, Ira Kaplan-led, jazzy tunes. The trio are infamously a musical history book, turning over bassists faster than U.S. Secretary of State nominees. Moreover, Jesse Jarnow’s thorough 2012 biography, Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, describes YLT as being “fans of too many bands to be attached to any one approach to how music should sound.” Yet, they’ve always found a way to make cohesive-sounding records. Their lyrical simplicity never hinders them, but rather steeps them in the tradition of pop purism. The standout, almost acoustic love song “I’ll Be Around” places two people in the existential context of space. “Save your kaleidoscope girl / In the doorway / Just look to my world at the times,” whispers a gentle Ira. Much like some of the best Blur songs, “I’ll Be Around” contrasts an individual with a big, beautiful universe in hopes that he or she will find his or her self.
It’s hard to analyze a YLT album that centers on companionship, ideas of home, and love without taking into account the fact that two of the three members of the band are married. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley keep their private lives exactly that, however. The two penultimate tracks address this specific public love/private love tension. “The Point of It” ends with Ira singing, “Say that we’re afraid / Say the night is close / Honey, that’s okay / If we’re getting old / If we’re not so strong / If our story’s told / That’s the point of being born.” “The Point of It” is the band’s deep breath almost thirty years in the making. Jarnow writes that YLT is “a band that was exactly the sum of its parts, of three talented and driven musicians whose entire personal and professional lives grew from a carefully monitored tumble between chance and uncompromising logic.” They may not have had much of a game-plan, but they can certainly evaluate their own success in hindsight.
The entire album leads up to the incredible final track “Before We Run.” Since they are total pop geeks, it’s no surprise to hear YLT take a page from some of today’s best bands. The brass section and pounding drums of the song seem inspired by former tour mates The National and Wye Oak, respectively. The six-minute track, the album’s second longest, turns into a duet between Ira and Georgia, one that continuously builds and falls, one whose lush strings fit right in with today’s baroque indie pop. Georgia first proposes “running away from the end” until Ira and Georgia, in unison, sing “take me on the honest trial.” Honesty and truth hurt.
YLT know they won’t stick around forever, as a band and as people. They find comfort in running away, not because they want to avoid the truth, but because they aren’t afraid of the truth. They know ends are not worth thinking about. Instead, for them, it’s worth continuing to create reflective, familiar, comforting music geared toward anyone who has ever wondered about his or her place in the world, i.e. everyone. They prove that you don’t need to choose between burning out and fading away. You can continue to do what makes you happy until the inevitable, peaceful, perhaps sudden end comes. Fade may literally fade to silence at the end, but YLT keeps on chugging.
Jordan Mainzer is a staff writer and editor of the art and design blog DRA. He recently wrote a piece for FP on maximalist electronic music. A recent graduate of Brown University, he now lives in Chicago.