If all you ever knew of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew was gleaned from their various album reviews throughout the years, including for their latest 'Fade', released in early 2013, you might think to yourself…Why do so many people seem to love Yo La Tengo? Like a great joke, your love of a particular piece of music really needs no explaining, but this latest set of selection of fuzzy, emotional songs is another long player example of why so many people love Yo La Tengo. To hear them like this, after almost 30 years, is beautiful.
Dreamy soundscapes, waves of distorted guitar, driving rhythms, and an off kilter edge prove a bedrock for some heartfelt, achingly melodic pop songs that seem to form effortlessly, whether it’s sweet declarations of love or laments on the time gone past. Reviews have likened it to earlier albums 'And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out' and 'I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One', but when Clash talked to James McNew, he was adamant the similarities are purely accidental.
“If people think it sounds like earlier records, and they like those records, then great, but that was never intentional,” he said. “I think this time we went in with all the songs fairly finished, certainly in terms of arrangements of songs. We had a fairly good idea of how we wanted it to go. But we didn't set out to write a bunch of songs that sound the same. We never sit down when the writing starts and set out the plan, like 'well last time that didn't work, but that did' kind of thing. We start accidentally writing songs and then eventually…it comes together.”
When Clash spoke with frontman Ira upon the release of their last record, he said that when putting together albums, he likes to put something on the album that surprises the listener. If that’s the case, what does James think are the surprises on Fade?
“Ira has the mind-set of an athlete, or a baseball pitcher that has a different pitch to try and throw something past a batter,” he laughs. “I don't really think about it that way though. To me, it's all a surprise. I don't know, I guess when we're making the sequences, I like to hear the breath in between songs, sort of the sustained mood of a string of songs. Like when we play live, we very often don't stop a lot in between, we just let the songs drift from one into the next, and that's kinda I guess just how I hear music now, and will forever. I hear it all like a mix, and how one songs becomes another.”
As a collection of songs, 'Fade' is both explorative and joyful, a rich, dense and emotional experience that relies more on mood and feel rather than traditional song writing structures.
“I think that’s definitely true,” said James. “I mean, my understanding of traditional song writing is that I have no understanding of it. When I think of traditional song writing, I'm thinking of Paul Simon, waking up in the morning, eating an egg, taking his briefcase full of poems to an office, and then sitting there until 5pm writings songs for his job. And well…we just don't work that way. We never have words that we want to set to music. The music always comes first, and the words are the very last thing. I think that allows the words to fit the music a lot better. On Fade, I think the moods and colours of the music informed the words completely.”
A lot of the lyrics, some have argued, centre around the husband and wife duo of Hubley and Kaplan, with songs being likened to musical love letters, but there’s also introspective yearnings on aging, personal tragedy and deeper emotional bonds. All in all, it feels like an altogether more personal affair.
“I think we all like the words to be kind of personal for everybody, and not just us I mean,” agreed James. “I know when I write words, they mean something to me, but it's nice when other identify with them too. I guess we like it to be open that way, we don't like to define the meaning too much. It's kinda more fun not knowing the answer, and filling in the blanks yourself. But I suppose it's more than that. I think once you define its meaning, the mystery is over, and I don't want that.”
Those multi layers of meaning is reflected in the music, a tapestry of noise so rich and dense that it reveals new layers and melodies on repeated listens.
“As far as hearing things differently everytime, that's maybe the nicest thing that can be said about recordings,” smiled James. “I mean, there are records I've been obsessed with my entire life. I listen to them even now and notice something different. Pere Ubu 'Heart of Darkness' - I've heard that song a million times, and even now I notice things that surprise me. If our music is in anyway considered as being like that, then that's the highest kind of honour for me.”
Words by Mark Millar
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'Fade' is out now.
Yo La Tengo are set to play the following shows:
20 London Barbican
21 Manchester The Ritz
22 Glasgow O2 ABC
23 Dublin Vicar Street