Yo La Tengo was already a well-established indie band by the time they entered my consciousness with Painful, in 1993. They had already morphed from a band with a Lou Reed/Velvet Underground fixation into one with an expansive, experimental sound that could bring to mind My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. Mixed in with the noise, however, were always perfectly-crafted and achingly sweet pop tunes that you wouldn’t hesitate to put on a mix tape for your mom. The songs on any given album ranged from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde; both were equally brilliant.
Fifteen years on, they can still wallop listeners with fuzz and feedback, but the overwhelming vibe of Popular Songs—just as it has been with just about every YLT album released in the past decade or more—is mellow maturity. Husband and wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are two-thirds of YLT, and their acceptance of—and more touchingly, their appreciation for—each other shines through in the mid-tempo songs that make up the bulk of the album. In “I’m on My Way,” there’s a recognition that relationships aren’t all about highs and lows; sometimes there is an amiable middle ground, closer to the high point than the low point, and that’s just fine. “I tried to be brooding and dark, but it all fell through,” Ira sings. “I’ll use my imagination / As much as I can / But all I can think of is you / can I hold your hand?” This theme is resurrected in “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” in which the happy couple faces the “final fling” walking hand in hand. It’s not sad, exactly. Melancholy, for sure, but comforting.
Be warned: the album ends with three straight marathons, which strikes me as a bad sequencing decision. Nevertheless, the very last track, “And the Glitter is Gone” has become my favorite all-time 15-minute instrumental. It’s vintage YLT, would sound right at home on any of their early-to-mid-‘90s disks, and lasts my entire commute home in the evening. But you have to be in the right mood to cue up a 15-minute guitar freakout, and I can’t help but wonder if the song would have been better chopped in half and seasoned with some cryptic lyrics.
I still miss the louder, more uncertain YLT of years past, but I’ve come to accept that Ira and Georgia have moved on. They continue to prove that maturity doesn’t signal the end of creativity, even if the highs aren’t quite as high. If it’s bombast you want, check out their side project, the Condo Fucks. The eponymous debut album—one of my favorites of the year—is YLT hiding behind a naughty name and some great covers, exercising their grungy garage rock side with more low-fi noise than you can shake a drumstick at.