Fade, the title of Yo La Tengo’s 13th album, suggests a type of planned obsolescence that doesn’t really jibe with the ethos of consistency the band has established over almost 30 years. In the span of time where countless other bands followed a patented model of toiling in obscurity, making it big, breaking up and then getting back together to cash in on the reunion circuit, Yo La Tengo has walked a steadier, less sensational path of careful refinement, subtle experimentation and steely determination. With the marriage of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley serving as both a backbone and a metaphor for the band’s unwavering commitment to itself, they’ve shown no signs of even slowing down, much less fading away. And yet there’s the title: Fade. And the cover art: a large overgrown tree. Though the image is bright and vibrant, it’s hard not to interpret it as autumnal, an elegiac sign of what’s to come.
Like most bands with this much history, Yo La Tengo’s discography has developed peaks and valleys over time—most point to the four-album run of Painful through And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out as an untouchable plateau—but each record contains its obvious mixtape-worthy hits, peculiar digressions and secret treasures. A quick examination of Fade reveals two important distinctions: It’s the shortest Yo La Tengo album since Fakebook and the first recorded without producer Roger Moutenot, who’s been around since 1993′s Painful. Fade was instead produced by John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea And Cake) in Chicago, and the first thing you’ll likely notice is that the band has done away with the long, extended jams that punctuated its last two albums, 2006′s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and 2009′s Popular Songs. The new album is an act of delicate concision.
But there’s nothing timid about Fade. “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top/Sometimes the good guys lose/Try not to lose our hearts/Not to lose our minds,” sings Kaplan on opener “Ohm,” articulating the album’s weary but never defeated tone over a rumbling guitar jangle, a stumbling drumbeat and the drone-like wheeze of an organ. The charming and confident song could easily be re-imagined as a beer-swilling, shit-kicking sing-along or as a lurching, defiant blast of noise depending on how the band chooses to approach it in a live setting. On record it serves as the perfect invitation to the album’s lovelorn world.
The next track, “Is That Enough,” finds the band in a familiar pose, contrasting melancholy lyrics with the sunny tics of a ’70s pop song—big disco strings, the slow-build to the chorus, the twee precision of Kaplan’s breathy “well”—but the record reveals its more peculiar qualities as it goes along. Where the last two Yo La Tengo albums were marked by a wild-eyed, try-anything approach, Fade is comparably restrained with certain songs, like the ethereal, Hubley-sung ballad “Cornelia And Jane,” almost evaporating on contact. Though there’s crackling fuzz-rock (“Paddle Forward”) and pleading, whispered funk (“Well You Better”) creeping around the edges, most of the songs exist in a calmer space, a cricket-filled, fog-kissed Eden of infinite dusk.
“I always know that when we wake up/You’re mine,” sings Kaplan on the album’s centerpiece, “Stupid Things.” In the context of the song, he seems to be talking about the way a goodnight’s rest can make an argument disappear, but he’s also describing the album’s peaceful, trance-like appeal. It holds you in its grasp even as it lulls you to sleep. The second half in particular finds the group slowly peeling away production flourishes and laying the songs bare, letting them float by on mercurial ambiance and tremulous dread. The effect can be hypnotic: “Two Trains,” a simmering lava lamp of a track, captures the uneasy feeling of falling asleep on a train so well that I’ve already fallen asleep on a train to it (multiple times).
That’s not to imply that the record is boring or repetitive. It’s just that the album’s pastoral beauty and its many ambiguities lend themselves to a certain time of night, a certain state of mind where you’re still willing to do the mental work but maybe you forgot some of the rules. While Fade‘s sleepy charms can appear slight when compared to the canonical totems in the band’s back catalog, it’s best to remember that this is a record about serenity, endurance and mortality. It doesn’t just reward patience—it teaches it.