There’s a book by Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures, articles about Kinks albums and genre flicks and other inspirations of his, written as he was turning from a critic into a director. What sticks with me is how he explained the power of great westerns: that they had the patience to follow the action from the time the first cow entered the river at a crossing to when the last cow came out. Room to spare. Ira Kaplan, another critic and Kinks obsessive turned artist, seems always to have understood this. On my favorite Yo La Tengo song, “Big Day Coming,” recorded for 1993’s Painful as grunge was elevating everyone else’s expectations, he sings: “Let’s be undecided, let’s take our time.” And when, later on in the lyric, he can’t sleep, “thinking of where it all would lead,” he wakes up his wife and drummer, Georgia Hubley. They go for a walk.
I wasn’t listening to Yo La Tengo in 1993. Too much was breaking, and they’d always seemed more like the people I watched the Feelies with at Maxwell’s than the Feelies themselves. Perhaps it’s the rock fan’s version of sibling-incest taboo: They were too familiar for me to succumb to them as rockers. Aesthete bands abounded then: even husband-guitarist, wife-drummer teams, like Eleventh Dream Day. So I didn’t wonder what I’d missed until Yo La’s big day did come, with 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, an intentional tour de force that succeeded in a dozen different styles, with songs somehow exactly as substantial as their premises were unlikely. Its glossy sound responded to indie pop’s new fascination with French theory, i.e., Stereolab. More important, with rock undergoing another personality crisis, Yo La Tengo were actually troubling to make “My Little Corner of the World” the city’s most happening neighborhood.
Ostensibly, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out turns its head back in. Between the almost qawwali-like reserve of the opening drone, “Everyday,” and the 17:41 coda, “Night Falls on Hoboken,” the only breaks in the quiet are a disco cover from George McRae, and the smooth rocker “Cherry Chapstick.” But it takes even more self-confidence to ignore fashion and succeed in one style a dozen times. Or to offer “looking to embrace the nothing of the everyday” as a manifesto. Yo La performed six songs from the album at Town Hall February 29, supplemented by Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan on vibes and percussion and David Kilgour of the Clean on guitar, keyboard, and percussion. Shifting alignments constantly, they made casual theater out of the rhythmic and textural subtleties that the new CD’s apparent simplicity conceals. Then Kaplan and bassist James McNew did some backup-singer aerobics to “You Can Have It All.” Woo hah!!
What’s doubly delicious is that Yo La Tengo haven’t just made an album that begs to be called boring. They’ve made an album that dwells on how boring they probably seem to others, even sometimes to themselves. In the beautiful “Our Way to Fall,” Ira courts Georgia by staring at his feet. The single, “Saturday,” applauds zoning out. On the rocker, Kaplan murmurs: “Swingers on the move/Wondering what it would be like if I could be that smooth”—now that it’s too late to act he’s finally cool enough to impress the high school girls back in Croton. Alternating with the disco and rock tracks, “The Crying of Lot G,” “Tears Are in Your Eyes,” and “From Black to Blue” pull wry and wrenching song out of passionlessness and emotional fatigue. Things anyone in a long-term dynamic confronts, bands and couples alike.
Yo La Tengo have connected these two realities like nobody before them, turning their status as a group into a mirror of the status of their relationship. They’re not trying to generate any mad crushes; they’re in this until the last cow crosses the river. What cinches the deal is their other abiding love, pop culture, the essence of ephemerality to some, but for Kaplan a quarter century’s passion. “Everyday” nods to Paul Le Mat in 1980’s Melvin and Howard, while the E-bow guitar summons the Feelies from the same year. “Let’s Burn Down Tony Orlando’s House” takes its premise from a Simpsons episode, imagines the duo Dawn as a girl Frankie Valli craves, and shaggily reaches Hubley’s calm punch line: “We’re sorry to inform you/Tony Orlando/Has been postponed.” The lack of noise doesn’t bug me because Yo La clatter is just more prettiness—if their heroes rocked for catharsis from Neil Young to Dead C, they pat feedback on the head like a favorite pet. I finally understand their punk rock sex appeal: They’re so well-adjusted it’s scary.