Try to be more assured / Try to be more right there —“Sugarcube”
No one ever gave me better advice about making a relationship work than Ira Kaplan. I didn’t quite appreciate it the first time, but that’s often the way these things go.
I was a teenager when I saw the video for Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” on 120 Minutes. The clip featured a pre–Saul Goodman Bob Odenkirk and a pre–Tobias Fünke David Cross. I was too young to know about Mr. Show, too young to get all the jokes about Rush, too young to know that Yo La Tengo were already a decade-plus into the indie-rock game—or what the indie-rock game meant—and too young to understand just how difficult it can be to be there. But I’d learn soon enough.
“Sugarcube” ended up being an underground hit, and coupled with the ecstatic reviews for its attendant album I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, it seemed like Yo La Tengo were on the precipice of something big. 1997 was that kind of year. Sleater-Kinney had released their breakthrough album, Dig Me Out. Pavement and Guided by Voices had released two of their most polished albums with, respectively, Brighten the Corners and Mag Earwhig! With the alt-rock gold rush having devolved into bands like Bush and Sugar Ray clogging up the radio, it didn’t seem so radical to think that if indie rock wasn’t going to quite blow up, it might become something bigger than it was, an alternative to the Alternative. This would eventually happen, but not for a few more years. But by then, it would be clear that Yo La Tengo weren’t interested in getting bigger. Small was where their hearts were.
Yo La Tengo was formed in 1984 by the Queens-born Kaplan, a lifelong Kinks fan and a music critic for New York Rocker and Village Voice, and Georgia Hubley, a drummer whose nonchalant vocals and stripped-back style helped earn the group comparisons to the Velvet Underground. Even if you didn’t know that the pair met when they kept seeing each other at shows and record stores, and that it took forever for them to talk to each other, and longer still to go from dating to making music, you’d be able to figure it out by listening. On early songs such as “The Cone of Silence,” you can practically hear the nervous sideways glances and smudged fingerprints on a vinyl copy of The Modern Lovers.
By the time bassist James McNew joined for their 1992 album May I Sing With Me, the band had evolved from a group of music fans in love with their voluminous record collection to the one that could inspire obsession in others, proving that with enough hard work and carefully curated fuzz pedals, the sort of fan who obsessively read Trouser Press album guides could will their way into the canon. Yo La Tengo continued to grow in popularity in the ’90s, earning rave reviews for 1993’s Painful and 1995’s Electr-O-Pura and a spot on the hallowed ’95 Lollapalooza lineup. Singles such as “Tom Courtenay” and “From a Motel 6” showed they could create feedback-seared pop and summon squalls of shoegaze-inspired jet-engine noise bombs with ease. But for the follow-up to I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo would retain their tendency for high-brow allusions (the video for “From a Motel 6” was directed by indie-auteur Hal Hartley and “Tom Courtenay” was a name-check to a cultishly beloved actor) while turning the volume, and perhaps the guarded remove that comes with it, way down.
And the song said “Let’s be happy” / I was happy / It never made me happy before —“Last Days of Disco”
By 2000, Pavement had broken up, Guided by Voices had awkwardly tried to shoot for the big time with the quasi-major label mishap Do the Collapse, and indie rock was in a distinctly non-rocking mood, as the barebones folk of Cat Power and Elliott Smith, the orchestral pop of Belle and Sebastian, and the post-rock instrumental sprawls of Tortoise defined the sound of the underground. Perhaps sensing a shift in the zeitgeist, or just curious about life beyond feedback, Yo La Tengo began rethinking how their songs could move and feel.
Released 20 years ago, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out found Yo La Tengo eschewing their noisier tendencies. Reteaming with longtime producer Roger Moutenot, Yo La Tengo retreated to Nashville, which had unexpectedly become a second home to the New Jersey denizens. According to Jesse Jarnow’s biography Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock, everyone was particularly enamored of the local staple Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack.
Guitars were treated as a textural element, while the members experimented with organ sighs, rigid drum machines, and gentle cymbal taps. They embraced experimentation and mistakes. As Moutenot recalled in Big Day Coming, Hubley didn’t really know how to play vibraphone, “but there’s something beautiful about that,” he said. “She’s reaching for the C and is just an eighth-note behind. And that’s character, and I love that.” Recounting the making of the album’s nearly 18-minute closer “Night Falls on Hoboken,” which took two days to capture in one proper long take, Jarnow writes: “The elongated strum grew and grew, an expanding mood abstracting into feedback and percussion atmosphere, changing internal configuration like the shifting moods of a sleepless night.”
Songs such as “Our Way to Fall” and “Tears Are in Your Eyes” float along gently, as lightly insistent jazz drumming props up keyboards that feel like a long exhale made after getting something off your chest. Yo La Tengo uses the gentle, unhurried nature of their songs as an opportunity to zoom in on small, quiet moments of connection and doubt, to be right there, no matter how uncomfortable it gets. The album cover, a photograph by Gregory Crewdson, obliquely sums the whole thing up: an image of an ordinary moment in an ordinary town that we sense means everything.
Kaplan and Hubley were smart, writerly lyricists. One senses they’re the types to never let their stacks of unread New Yorker issues get too high. Jarnow referred to their earlier work as “endearing elliptical declarations” and “Ray Davies–esque character studies.” But here, they open up, in their own way, about the hard work needed to keep a good thing good, year after year.
But it seems like it’s just a little thing like / You don’t want to listen / When I can’t shut up —“The Crying of Lot G”
There’s a reason that most romantic comedies end after the cute people finally kiss, and that most musician biopics omit the scene in which the artist tries to figure out how to make their 10th album interesting. The day-to-day grind isn’t inherently cinematic. The work of continual renewal is rarely addressed. But it’s important, because a good marriage and a good band are worth fighting for.
Throughout And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the couple resists any urge to hide in their record collection or obscure their feelings with clever quips. They stand in moments of unease, illuminating the vulnerability of daily life just like Crewdson’s eerie spotlight. On the floating-bachelor-pad sway of “The Crying of Lot G,” Kaplan muses about the dumb squabbles between couples, how all the inside jokes can’t stop an argument; how even the smartest couples can be too dumb to help themselves. “All that I ask is you / Stop and remember / It isn’t always this way,” he pleads, hoping time can do the work he can’t. Hubley delivers the most vulnerable vocal performance of her career on the languid country-soul lament “Tears Are in Your Eyes,” musing over the frustration of not knowing how to help a depressed partner, while acknowledging that said frustration isn’t helpful and hoping that “you won’t even remember this for long / When it ends all right.”
In Jarnow’s impressively researched book, Kaplan and Hubley have a lot to say about zero-budget cross-country tours and how to protect one’s integrity while dealing with the necessary evil of capitalism. If the pair had any thoughts about the difficulty of making a band and a marriage last for decades, they declined to share. They just aren’t the type to get into their feelings that way. In an interview with The New York Times around the time of Nothing’s release, Kaplan warned against a one-to-one reading of the album: “I hope the lyrics ring true, but it’s naive to think that they’ve been ripped from our diaries. Some of the lyrics are autobiographical, some of them are not close, but all of them reflect feelings that we have.” (At the end of the interview, Hubley shut down an admittedly rude question about whether the couple ever planned to have children.)
As is Yo La Tengo’s wont, the album is littered with wry allusions. The space-age strut of “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” is nicked from an episode of The Simpsons (whose theme song the band were invited to cover after the success of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One caught the attention of the show’s producers), even as it muses on the day-to-day headaches and mishaps known to all working musicians. “Last Days of Disco” is a nod to Whit Stillman’s cult classic (it’s not surprising the band saw a kindred soul in Stillman, a fellow buttoned-up observer of the human condition), even as it feels like one of their most autobiographical songs ever. Maybe. But it doesn’t really matter if a young Kaplan once found a moment of release and connection after forcing himself onto a dance floor against all his better judgment; the song still feels true and vulnerable in a way he had never allowed himself to be before.
Come on, let’s leave our misery / And crawl toward where we want to be —“Night Falls on Hoboken”
After getting priced out of Brooklyn, I moved to Hoboken two months after Maxwell’s, the beloved New Jersey indie rock club that served as Yo La Tengo’s unofficial clubhouse, closed its doors. The band members would slowly leave their home of several decades shortly afterward. Perhaps I need to work on my timing.
Hoboken is still a lovely place to live, but after a few years my wife and I were sad that we still didn’t have any friends in the area. So we started a book club centered on music, hoping we would find our people. It worked. Eventually, we got around to reading Big Day Coming, as it would have felt disrespectful not to. My book club appreciated the thoughtful nature of Jarnow’s writing and reporting and his informed look at indie rock’s rise to cultural prominence. But one of my older friends in the group complained about the lack of sordid rock ’n’ roll antics.
I had to concur, noting that in Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements, there’s a part where the Minneapolis hellraisers get blind drunk and throw knives at each other. In Big Day Coming, there’s lots of anecdotes about baseball games and roadside BBQ establishments that the band enjoyed. But the ordinariness of Yo La Tengo is part of the appeal.
It’s easy to mythologize the live-hard-and-burn-out-fast rock star mythos of the Replacements. But, of course, you’re better off being Yo La Tengo in the long run. And that’s probably the reward Yo La Tengo received for their hard work, the opportunity to work some more. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out didn’t take the band to the “next level,” but that wasn’t something they were ever interested in. Lead reviews in Rolling Stone, appearances on Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and legend-cemented appreciation would be more than enough.
Yo La Tengo is so consistently good that it’s easy to underrate them. Nothing and Heart are the acknowledged classics, but since McNew joined they haven’t made a single bad album, and they always find a way to push themselves to a surprising new place each time, and their 2018 album There’s a Riot Going On was one of their most experimental releases ever. That can’t be easy. As anyone who has ever spent time in a therapy session complaining about how Thurston Moore ruined Sonic Youth or marveled quietly in awe as their parents celebrated their 50th anniversary can attest, keeping a marriage fresh and alive can’t possibly be easy either. Hard work might not be glamorous, but it’s necessary, and thankfully Yo La Tengo is around to show us it’s worth it.
As Jarnow notes, the album title comes from a Sun Ra bootleg, in which the jazz visionary led the audience in a chant of “And then nothing turned itself inside out and became something! And then nothing turned itself inside out and became something!” But of course, nothing can’t do anything. Nothing is nothing. It takes effort to make something, to turn loneliness inside out into love, isolation inside out into a community, the hopes of two shy fans inside out into a dream fulfilled. And as Yo La Tengo proves year after year, that something, that effort, matters.
Michael Tedder has written for Esquire, Stereogum, The Village Voice, and Playboy, and is the founder of the podcast and reading series Words and Guitars.