It’s fitting that Yo La Tengo, embarking on their 27th year of playing together, opens their newest album, Fade, with this chorus: “But nothing ever stays the same…so say good night to me and lose no more time resisting the flow.” For a band that has been around for almost three decades and was a vital part of indie rock’s explosion in the early and mid-90s, Yo La Tengo knows a little something about change, carving out a longevity nearly unheard of in the indie rock scene, and this experience and wisdom serves them well on Fade. I’ll spare you the entire details of the band’s history—it would be longer than this review—and attempt to sum up where Fade fits in the group’s discography in a sentence or two. Lacking some of the distortion and noise of the band’s major records in the 90s like Painful (1993) and Electr-o-pura (1995), Fade is more subdued, relying more electronics and keyboards to fashion its emotional appeal than raucous bravado. In this manner, Fade pairs well with the band’s last full-length release, Popular Songs (2009), and one of their most loved albums, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997). Equal parts dreary and hopeful, sad and happy, and quiet and loud, Fade matches its January release date, born of the winter, yet pointing to the spring.
Fade opens with the luscious “Ohm,” and its layered guitars and vocals coupled with its guitar-squealing bridge make “Ohm” an immediate standout track and the closest thing to Yo La Tengo’s earliest work on the album. The only other song that comes close to the noise of “Ohm” is “Paddle Forward,” a dreamy, power-pop rocker with Beatles-esque melodies that hearkens back to the sound of early indie rock. Other than these two songs, the band contents itself with a number of mid-tempo and slower tracks that avoid becoming stale and boring due to Yo La Tengo’s ability to craft engaging choruses and the album’s wonderful production. Everything sounds warm and inviting on Fade, whether the random strings that interrupt “Is That Enough,” Ira Kaplan’s whispered vocals on “Stupid Things,” or the measured brass on the album’s closing track “Before We Run.” The slow pace of Fade allows its beauty to sink in, each song offering distinctive sonic pleasures from the others. Throughout these tracks, Kaplan traces impressionistic pictures with his lyrics, touching on themes of change, everyday beauty, and relationships.
In keeping with the album title, almost every song on Fade deals with loss or change in some manner, yet Kaplan’s lyrics strike a balance between optimism and pessimism, embracing some of life’s changes and losses as inevitable, while rejecting the attitude of defeat that can come with loss. Right at the album’s midpoint, “Stupid Things” best illustrates this tension present at the core of Fade: “Days just fade away, slide into grey. Every little thing just creeps up on you. A bumpy road happens every day and it takes my breath away.” As I see it, these three lines encapsulate Fade’s outlook on life: we can’t stop time’s march forward, but we can let life take our breath away, even if we find ourselves in less than ideal situations. Likewise, the album’s sublime closer “Before We Run” suggests that occasionally we need to push back against time’s demands to avoid becoming apathetic and jaded. By rejecting an attitude of despair, we can find a way to appreciate the present again: “Running away from the end, running away from the end, running away to stay…running away from there, running away from there, running until we’re there.” Perhaps, like the prodigal son, all our running only serves to bring us back home.
Fade’s lyrics provide plenty of moments for reflection, but its music steals the show. Warm and inviting, the lush production complements the dreamy soundscapes created by the band throughout the album. While a little softer and slower than previous Yo La Tengo efforts, Fade is nevertheless one of the best albums of January. So, put Fade on the stereo and curl up in front of a warm fire with a mug of hot chocolate; it’s a perfect antidote to the winter chill.