Whenever indie veterans like Yo La Tengo return with a new album, fans and critics alike will be eager to contextualize it within their revered catalogue. It’s fun work – you can go on and on comparing new and old songs without even really touching on themes, simply marking directional shifts. Four decades into their career, Yo La Tengo have such a sprawling and versatile discography that it’s no surprise their most beloved records, from 1997’s I Can Feel The Heart Beating As One to 2013’s Fade, are ones that make an effort to streamline their sound while eloquently fusing different styles. Aside from it being their first album of wholly new material since 2018’s There’s a Riot Going On, that’s another reason why This Stupid World feels like another pivotal moment in a career full of them. But you can’t talk about it the way we’re now used to relating to most releases in the genre. “There’s this pressure to come up with a narrative… and it certainly doesn’t exist in our case,” Ira Kaplan said in a recent interview, emphasizing that the point is to just enjoy getting together and playing music. Whatever comes out, comes out; what you hear is what you get.
What we get this time just so happens to be both hauntingly familiar and (modestly, of course) astounding. On paper, a lot of This Stupid World sounds doomful, or at least weathered by the passage of time. “Prepare to die/ Prepare yourself while there’s still time,” Ira Kaplan sings on ‘Until it Happens’; “You feel alone/ Friends are all gone,” his wife Georgia Hubley admits on ‘Miles Away’. Together with James McNew, they open the record by ushering in a steady, electrifying groove on ‘Sinatra Drive Breakdown’, where each observation feels bigger than itself, a growing premonition: “I see clearly how it ends/ I see the moon rise as the sun descends.” They could be singing about winter, or winter could be a metaphor for widespread destruction; the song sounds raw and already on the verge of a breakdown when Kaplan’s extended guitar workout tumbles over and eventually trails back, unable to change its course.
Amidst the chaos, the songs on This Stupid World don’t feel disorganized but rather in dialogue with each other. ‘Fallout’, a song I’m tempted to call an instant classic, flows in a similar vein as the opener, driven by a bracing riff that towers over the wall of sound. McNew’s ‘Tonight’s End’ handles strangely playful lyrics by dialing up the distortion; just when the droning noise seems like it’s just about to relent, the song bounces back again before finally reeling into ‘Aselestine’, a warm, pensive acoustic cut sung by Hubley. And then there’s the understated mid-album run of ‘Until It Happens’ and ‘Apology Letter’, the latter of which manages to live up to the promise of its title without feeling petty. Kaplan, earnest in his delivery, makes up for the clarity that gets lost in language by drifting into a lovely solo that stays faithfully on track until the end.
So what about the end? This Stupid World is, all things considered, not actually a dispiriting listen, but one that’s thrilling in its aliveness. ‘Brain Capers’ charges the record back up, whirling into a violent frenzy that prepares us for the wondrous catharsis of the title track. “This stupid world, it’s killing me,” goes its enveloping mantra. “This stupid world is all we have.” Rather than drowning under its own immensity, the feedback has the effect of amplifying its power and heart. Unlike most of the livelier songs on the LP, the group remains locked in for a full seven and half minutes, which whiz by in what feels like a flash – as they do on ‘Miles Away’, a final tender embrace. “Ease your mind/ Bide your time/ Hold those thoughts for now,” Hubley suggests, making it sound almost easy. There doesn’t have to be a story – certainly no simple resolution. None of this has to make sense. And yet somehow, when you play it back, it kind of does.