Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

September 15, 2009

ole-856.250x250Times are tough, no question there. But maybe even worse than that, times are uncertain. Never before has it seemed to me that so many things might break in so many ways along so many dimensions.

Against that backdrop, Yo La Tengo are out with another consistently great album, titled “Popular Songs.” The individual tracks themselves are varied. Some are long, others short; some rock hard (see the great “Nothing to Hide” video with Times New Viking), others come in more peaceful. Like always, one can’t help but love the band’s willingness to experiment with different styles, borrowing ideas liberally from the past but somehow always adding something new.

But what brings all these songs together is the unifying theme of inescapable uncertainty. That comes through most obviously on the opener, “Here to Fall” (“I know you’re worried/I’m worried too/But if you’re ready/I’m here to fall with you/What else is there for us to do”). But its still there, at least it seems so to me, even in the lighter ones: even “If It’s True,” with its “Can’t Help Myself” rip-off at the start, speaks later of coasts that are never clear.

It’s always tempting to think of Yo La Tengo together with Sonic Youth, partly because of the two bands’ similar demographics. And it’s probably no coincidence that Sonic Youth’s “The Eternal” also dwells heavily on the problem of uncertainty, making these two lps something like companion pieces. But whereas Sonic Youth’s new album emphasizes that little can be known for sure beyond the fact that we’re all gonna die, Yo La Tengo’s reminds us that that very fact means we ought to at least try to enjoy life while it lasts. Two sets of “popular songs” that capture two sides of a basic truth.

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