“Sometimes the bad guys come out on top/Sometimes the good guys lose” is the line that opens “Fade,” the new album from Hoboken-based indie-rockers Yo La Tengo. The line that ends the same song, “Ohm,” is “It’s been fun.”
Like every great band (which this one certainly is, to varying degrees depending on the album in question) Yo La Tengo has never depicted the world as a perfect place. But right from that opening song, “Fade” is less optimistic than most of their previous work. The second track, “Is That Enough,” features Ira Kaplan singing, “Things we did I’m thinking/The joke we left unsaid/Aren’t sure how and when we were misled,” before following the hopeful title-line with “It’s not enough.”
At the same time, none of this is what became apparent during my first few listens of “Fade.” What did become apparent was this is one of the most breathtaking albums ever recorded. It’s easily Yo La Tengo’s most beautiful album since their 1997 masterpiece, “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One,” and although it probably won’t reach that album’s level of acclaim, it’s definitely on its same level musically.
Like much of the band’s best material, the songs on “Fade” are generally quiet. The xx are often described as a good band for falling asleep, but their music seems boring in any other context.
With this album, Yo La Tengo manages to create songs you can drift off to sleep to, but also work to when you’re wide awake. In fact, the first time I heard the album was after waking up way too early and having nothing to do. “Ohm” was a brilliant song to wake up to, but “Is That Enough” was so gorgeous I began crying, which I had never done on the first listen of a song.
Eventually, you continue listening. If you’re like me, you won’t be able to stop listening. And what you find, behind the album’s dreamy sound, is lyrics that cover mortality.
Mortality is a topic that has never really been on the group’s mind much in the past. Take “Center of Gravity,” the best song on “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One,” for example. On that track, Georgia Hubley (the band’s drummer and Kaplan’s wife) sang, “Whenever you are next to me/Center of gravity/Can’t feel both feet on the ground.” Compare that to a line from “Fade,” “Find the comfort in our life/Before it disappears.”
This may seem grim, but there seems to be a reason for it. A year ago, Kaplan announced he’d had a serious health scare, although he didn’t specify what it was. This is just speculating, but it seems like that event may have influenced much of Kaplan’s lyricism on “Fade.” Perhaps a near-death experience made him contemplate darker topics. The heavily orchestrated music makes it seem like Kaplan and the rest of the band are being modest about the more contemplative lyrics, intent on making the album sound pretty in the presence of unpleasant circumstances.
Music critic Robert Christgau described Yo La Tengo’s underrated 2003 album “Summer Sun” as their love album. It might not be exactly right to describe “Fade” as their death album, but it nonetheless seems like the counter-image of “Summer Sun.” It also seems like the two switched album covers, with “Summer Sun” having a dark and cloudy album cover while “Fade” features a tree covered in sunshine.
“Fade” has its share of love songs. Lines like “I’ll be around to make up your thought” and “Let me hold on to you” prove Kaplan and Hubley are still in love. This is reassuring, considering the recent breakup of indie’s other most-famous couple, Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.
The final track, “Before We Run,” finishes the album on an aspiring note. “Hold it in your arms, be still, pull there/I’ll hold you in mine before we run,” Hubley sings, as a string and brass arrangement carries them through to the end. Life is scary but, in each other’s arms, they might be alright.
Grade: A PLUS
Key tracks: “Is That Enough,” “Cornelia and Jane,” “Ohm,” “Before We Run” and “I’ll Be Around.”