Essential New Music: Yo La Tengo’s “This Stupid World”

Live long enough and you’re bound to build some confidence in what you know. But if you live that long, one of the things you’ll know is how little you know. Certainty meets doubt, humility confronts brass. Yo La Tengo’s first album of songs in five years rests upon that nub.

Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew have continued working in the way that they have for a while now: alone. They wrote, recorded and mixed This Stupid World without assistance in their rehearsal space, just like they did for 2018’s There’s A Riot Going On. But where that album cohered out of home-studio adventures undertaken while breaking in a recording set-up, this time they’ve hammered any experimentation into solidly formed songs.

This gets us to one of those certainties: Hubley, Kaplan and McNew know quite a bit about writing great songs, and that knowledge has not failed them. This Stupid World is a veritable catalog of their strengths. There are hooks on top of hooks, like the chanted vocals stacked on top of an earworm-worthy guitar lick on “Fallout,” which make it highly likely that you’ll hear something first time through that’ll keep you coming back, then something else that’ll take over the job. Closely associated with that strength is another: They sound great playing them. From the combination of fuzztones and metronomic beats on opener “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” to the gentle singing and celestial accompaniment of “Aselestine” to the sleepwalking shoegaze sound whorls on sorta-closer (more about that in a minute) “Miles Away,” the band picks and combines just the right aural textures. If you’ve ever dug how Yo La Tengo sounds, you’ll find plenty to dig on This Stupid World. The only misstep is instrumental “Side Four,” seven minutes of electro-funk grooving that fills up the vinyl edition’s final side. It’s not terrible, but it feels very much like a b-side on an album full of a-sides and deep cuts.

When you bend your ear to what Yo La Tengo is singing here, the apparent confidence fades into a straightforward expressions of doubt. Scenes fly by while disaster approaches on “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” while “Apology Letter” recounts a litany of mistakes, each line digging the hole deeper until all Kaplan can do is admit that he’s a jerk. But that haplessness is deceptive, for there’s a lot of art built into these apparently artless confessions. Whether they’re singing about mortality on “Until It Happens” or facing up to resignation on the title track, they pack just enough plain truth into their songs to make you feel a bit less alone. In their vulnerability, there’s strength, and this is music that’ll help you stiffen your spine and quicken your step.

—Bill Meyer