The most difficult question in music criticism is: What does greatness look and sound like when a band is 32 years into its career?
It’s easy to assess greatness in a young phenom, and speculate on the incredible feats they will achieve in the years ahead. It’s also simple to notice when an artist has made a quantum leap from a promising debut to the hallowed “breakthrough sophomore release.” And it’s a breeze to herald the arrival of a mid-career comeback, aka “the best album since the breakthrough sophomore release.”
There are critical cliches that anyone can readily access. But it’s a damn feat of mental strength to make sense of a career arc like this: Band puts out first album during the same year as The Queen Is Dead and Lifes Rich Pageant, and around the time of Bruno Mars’ three-month birthday; the original duo adds a third member in 1991 and then proceeds to release a series of albums that range from “very good” to “excellent” through the end of the decade; the trio puts out its best album at the start of the 21st century, and then several more “very good” to “excellent” records afterward.
That’s not a career arc. It’s a 45-degree angle that levels off into a straight line and just keeps going and going (and going and going) through the ’80s American indie underground, shoegaze, lo-fi, grunge, bubblegrunge, rap-rock, garage rock, third-wave emo, freak folk, chillwave, fourth-wave emo, and every other passing trend in rock music from the past four decades.
Yo La Tengo survived all of it, while being part of almost none of it.
What complicates the “what does greatness look and sound like?” conundrum for Yo La Tengo is that the band members would surely scoff at such a grandiose question. Ira Kaplan, at the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, is not like Bono — he’s not one to ruminate publicly about what an aging rock band is “supposed to mean” in 2018. In a recent interview with Corbin Reiff, Kaplan declined to elaborate on the political significance of Yo La Tengo’s latest album, There’s A Riot Going On, even though front-loading a “message” would likely make the record more relevant to 23-year-old music writers. He prefers to keep the album open-ended, though I suspect he’s as allergic to pontification in interviews as he and Georgia Hubley are to pushing their vocals forward in the mix.
Yo La Tengo has never operated with the goal of mattering to the vast majority of people. Even in the relatively low-stakes indie world, Yo La Tengo’s fame trails precipitously behind contemporaries with less consistent catalogues, like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and the Pixies. The band’s greatest claim to fame is being used as a signifier of extreme music-nerdery in a classic Onion headline. At their most indie-famous, Yo La Tengo was only ever cool to approximately 0.2 percent of the population. But that 0.2 percent loves 93 percent of Yo La Tengo’s albums. (The remaining seven percent is 2003’s Summer Sun.)
Yo La Tengo is indie-rock’s answer to the Grateful Dead — impervious to the fleeting obsessions of the mainstream, eternally focused on whatever the hell they want to do, and committed to playing two mind-blowing sets at every gig. But unlike the Dead, a “Touch Of Grey” moment of late-career commercial recognition seems about as likely as Imagine Dragons performing a cover of “Autumn Sweater” at the Grammys.
But that’s okay, because commercial recognition — this is where Yo La Tengo truly breaks with contemporary critical orthodoxy — is not essential to understanding the band’s greatness.
Widespread validation does not improve this music; what allows Yo La Tengo to endure derives entirely from the band members’ ability to be great in a way that could only happen at a specific moment in their lives. There’s A Riot Going On is a great Yo La Tengo album that could’ve only been made by Yo La Tengo 32 years into its recording career, just as 1993’s Painful is great because it sounds like a band seven years into its career.
At every moment, Yo La Tengo sounds familiar and new simultaneously, as all humans should.
There’s A Riot Going On is a perfect Yo La Tengo album title — it’s a music-geek reference (nodding to the classic 1971 Sly and The Family Stone LP), ironic (because much of the album is quiet and borders on ambient music), and poetic (because the softness belies a deeply unsettled vibe that permeates the record). It tells you everything and nothing about the music contained within. It’s an introduction to what you’re about to hear, and an invitation to make it your own.
To put it somewhat reductively, Yo La Tengo makes two kinds of albums — “songs” albums (like Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One) and “feels” albums (like 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and Summer Sun). The former displays Yo La Tengo’s natural grasp of music craft across a variety of genres — Velvets-inspired twee, sweet ’60s Motown, raging psych-punk, satin-laced balladry. The latter indulges their equally strong proclivity for free-form abstraction.
There’s A Riot Going On starts out as a “songs” album — in fact, some of the very best and most luminous tunes they’ve recorded this century are found at the start of this record, including the impossibly lovely “For You Too,” in which Kaplan pleads for one last chance to be a decent guy over a sweetly murmuring jangle, a formula that has appeared on exactly 15 out of 15 Yo La Tengo records and yet never gets old. A few tracks later, Hubley coos “Polynesia #1,” a well-chosen obscurity by cult folkie Michael Hurley, because Yo La Tengo never stops playing to its record-collector base.
This is very good, dependable stuff. And then There’s A Riot Going On drifts off into the ether of thoughts, fears, dreams, and distractions. If the bookend tracks — “You Are Here” and “Here You Are” — give the album a meditative structure, the heart of There’s A Riot Going On is where the deepest introspection occurs, with “Dream Dream Away,” “Shortwave,” and “Above The Sound” ditching conventional song structures altogether in favor of glacial sonic drift.
What does any of this have to do with politics? I don’t know what the literal connection is, beyond putting the listener in a headspace that feels authentic and true and (because this is 2018) scary and heartbroken and resilient.
“We are out of words / we’re out of time / believe the worst,” Kaplan and Hubley sing in “Here You Are,” in a barely audible chant that beams beneath gently chugging campfire rhythms. This is real life seeping in at the end of an hour-long magical spell. Because real life moves on.
“Always on the run, we’re here,” they sing as the record closes. Of course Yo La Tengo is here — that’s what makes them great.
There’s A Riot Going On is out on 3/16 on Matador Records. Get it here.