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.)