Yo La Tengo’s Lifelong Love Story

Yo La Tengo’s Lifelong Love Story

Across decades, the venerable band has quietly pioneered an intimate form of rock, at once adventurous and deeply personal.


The story of Yo La Tengo—the actual story, not to be confused with their purposely misspelled 2006 track “The Story of Yo La Tango”—involves sundry minor narratives, shorn of the typically tawdry legends of sex and drugs, woven to form one of indie rock’s most modest institutions. On one level, it’s a love story about Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s relationship, which they began as two young, humble artists dancing around each other in overlapping social circles before joining at the hip. But it’s also about that duo’s very gradual artistic development across nearly 40 years, which essentially involved spending the 1980s learning how to be a band—how to play their instruments well, how to record an album efficiently, how to tour—through trial and error, while doggedly searching for a permanent bassist, running through 14 ill-suited candidates before finally landing on James McNew seven years into their career.

Jesse Jarnow’s decade-old biography of the group, Big Day Coming, warmly chronicles Yo La Tengo’s slow rise to acclaim, hitting all the beats from gaining a foothold at the famed Hoboken, N.J., club Maxwell’s to signing with Matador Records, but the book comes alive when it illustrates both their singularity and endearing ordinariness. Jarnow frequently digresses from the main narrative to fill out the world of alternative/underground rock culture in the 1980s, a regional network of small record labels, tastemakers, promoters, and DJs that operated parallel to the dominant culture. Though the thicket of various names and bands might suggest otherwise, Big Day Coming captures that ecosystem’s relatively small size and how the metrics of success had little to do with superstardom. The goals were more pragmatic: something in the spitting distance of a middle-class life where making art and maintaining one’s integrity weren’t mutually exclusive.

Though Yo La Tengo have left that relatively small pond—because the proverbial water dried out, and because of their commercial success—their raison d’être hasn’t changed at all. This Stupid World, their 17th studio album under their own name, serves as a reminder of the band’s numerous talents wrapped in a fleet, dynamic package. The record’s propulsive first single, “Fallout,” sports what can be described as a characteristic Yo La Tengo chorus: “Fall out of time,” sings Kaplan, surrounded but not smothered by a swirling mass of his own guitar. Kaplan and Hubley whisper-harmonize together in a comfortingly familiar way on “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” the tone-setting opening jam, whose title pays tribute to their Hoboken hometown. On the whole, This Stupid World consciously sounds like a “classic” Yo La Tengo album.

None of the songs feel old hat despite operating within a recognizable sandbox, partly because they arose from spontaneous jam sessions. This Stupid World is the band’s most live-sounding album in years, one that’s of a piece with their improvised ambient album, We Have Amnesia Sometimes, which they recorded during the pandemic with a single microphone in the center of their rehearsal space. The group also eschewed an outside producer for the first time, choosing to record and mix the album themselves. No matter how much they consolidate their creative process, it’s a testament to Yo La Tengo that each of their records feels vital precisely because it sounds like themselves.

By this point in their career, Yo La Tengo is a living, breathing conduit to a bygone era as well as a creatively sustainable institution at a time when that kind of endurance feels especially precarious. Some of their staying power has to do with luck, and much of it with persistence, but it’s worth noting that Kaplan and Hubley were beneficiaries of excellent cultural timing. Born at the tail end of the baby boom, Kaplan was just old enough to remember seeing the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show and just young enough to witness punk rock slowly explode in real time. He was part of the generation who came of age in the shadow of the Velvet Underground, who saw a band as a vehicle that moved between the borders of rock and roll and the avant-garde, one that operated within a tradition while cutting its own path.

Kaplan spent his formative years as a rock critic—mainly for New York Rocker and SoHo Weekly News, though he also frequently freelanced for Creem and The Village Voice—which helped solidify an expansive musical knowledge and an insatiable curiosity. He and Hubley were scene kids in the literal sense, frequent staples at CBGB’s and other downtown clubs, first separately and then always together. The two supported themselves in the early days of the band through various freelance side jobs in and outside the music industry. There was enough economic stability within a bevy of creative fields for the duo to make small steps with their band without floundering in poverty.

Financial security aside, Yo La Tengo crucially emerged at a time when self-confidence and identity could organically develop in the public eye but outside a harsh spotlight. The ’80s underground flourished when music traveled slower and fan bases were more localized, which allowed terminally shy performers like Kaplan and Hubley to tinker with their sound and acquire a shared stage presence entirely on their own terms. Early on, Hubley could only sing in the studio when hidden behind a screen; knowing that, it’s quite powerful to witness her stand front and center to perform “You Can Have It All” on a 2000 episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

Every Yo La Tengo record—especially after their breakthrough, Painful—is the product of a band feeling free enough to commit to its own aesthetic. While it’s hard to force a narrative onto This Stupid World to render it especially urgent, it still lies on a continuum of the band mining its own musical chemistry for continually rewarding results. Apart from French horn player CJ Camerieri briefly appearing on two tracks, This Stupid World features the trio of Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew moving effortlessly between a congruent sound and jazz-like solos to highlight each member, all without much unnecessary flash.

Much of Yo La Tengo’s distinctive character involves embracing a permanently eclectic repertoire, exhibited in their stylistically diverse discography and prodigious catalog of covers. Hence, the typical Yo La Tengo song eludes convenient definitions. But they’ve dabbled in everything from bossa nova to shoegaze, ’60s-era soul, krautrock, punk rock, noise rock, and straight-up bubblegum pop. They’ve found purchase in the three-minute pop song, the gentle acoustic ballad, and the lengthy instrumental jam. They don’t treat genre like a cheap costume; their varied sonic wardrobe was precisely the goal. “They were fans of too many bands to be attached to any one approach to how music should sound,” Jarnow writes. “There was too much in their heads to embrace any one thing to the exclusion of all else.”

This Stupid World features many examples of the band’s polymathic approach. McNew, whose occasional lead-vocal contributions to the band have tended toward the mellow and melodic, changes things up in “Tonight’s Episode,” which fuses minor-key noise with psych rock. Hubley’s beautiful voice lends characteristic power to “Aselestine,” a pastoral paean to grief amid the changing seasons that leans on acoustic guitar, and the album’s closer, “Miles Away,” an ethereal electronic number that could conceivably soundtrack one’s transition to the afterlife. This Stupid World doesn’t reach the level of experimentation of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, which purposefully moved between many different musical modes, but it still coherently integrates different styles without once sounding disjointed. A strong foundation of unfettered intimacy ties the album together: It’s why “Until It Happens,” Kaplan’s tribute to death’s inevitability, ultimately sounds like a love song.

Kaplan and Hubley’s relationship attests to the viability of a long-term creative and artistic partnership, a relative rarity in the history of popular music. (Hubley’s parents, John and Faith—Oscar-winning animators credited with making indelible contributions to their chosen medium—at least laid some foundation for staunchly independent artistic collaboration.) Romance surges through Yo La Tengo’s best tracks, the kind that has been molded in the fixtures of a realistic, inhabited world—worn couches, stale air, the low hum of an old television—but retains an unbridled passion. “Our Way to Fall” perfectly captures the awkward blush of first love without rendering it the least bit trite, while “Last Days of Disco” and “Well You Better” embody the loneliness and frustration, respectively, of a breakup. “Dream a quiet place for us to fight,” Kaplan coos on the band’s 1993 single “From a Motel 6,” a noisy dream-pop song whose spiky warmth doubles as a sonic and lyrical statement of purpose for the group. “Autumn Sweater” personifies tender feeling and carnal desire not just by preaching simple truths—it sucks to wait for your crush to arrive at a party; it’s always better to leave together; love isn’t worth it if you can’t smile easily—but also by trading in the guitar for a stirring organ as the musical Biro for its poetry.

That same steadfast quality can be extended to include the Yo La Tengo trio, which has always felt like a group of friends who play music less out of professional obligation and more because they enjoy each other’s company. If anything, the downsizing of the recording process on This Stupid World confirms their professional stamina—they can forgo almost all outside influence if needed in light of a confining pandemic, or when inspiration strikes after a return to their always-spirited live shows, such as their annual Hanukkah residency, a New York City tradition since 2001. Yo La Tengo’s reliability isn’t something to be taken for granted at a time when even veteran indie musicians are being squeezed out of a marketplace that only seems to have space for the biggest stars. After all, the promise of indie rock was that “the stage” was worthy of people who looked like your friends.

This Stupid World’s standout title track, a trance-like ambient number, features the uniquely Yo La Tengo characteristic of sounding simultaneously quiet and loud. Their unparalleled ability to welcome noise of their own creation while also lending it beauty and grace takes on a slightly different shade this time around as the trio sermonizes an obvious, essential mantra of these modern times: This stupid world is killing us, but it’s also all we have. They don’t treat the idea with shrugging cynicism but like an unfailing fact, one that demands confrontation, a challenge to be accepted, instead of a gloomy prognosis.

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