It’s an old gift in a new package.
In late August, Yo La Tengo, the 31-year-old lo-fi group from northeast New Jersey, released another full-length studio album, “Stuff Like That There,” to little fanfare save for the hordes of aging diehards that frequent the coffee shops looping their records.
“Stuff Like That There” doesn’t stray far from the brooding plaintiveness that America’s quintessential indie rock band has developed for over three decades. The band’s fourteenth studio session evokes the discomfort of shoeless walks down a worn road. It’s 45 minutes of dour Americana that succeeds by unevenly toeing the line between loneliness and solitude, or not even recognizing the division at all.
For a band that’s older than Taylor Swift and whose members were born before our sitting president, “Stuff Like That There” proves satisfyingly consistent. After decades of dabbling in soft rock’s shadowy underground, Yo La Tengo’s an old dog that hasn’t learned new tricks. Fans and new listeners alike will dig the tricks they have come to master, namely that they’re still “Murdering the Classics.”
The group’s famous penchant for covers intensifies on “Stuff Like That There,” an album dense with borrowed songs — megastars like The Cure (“Friday I’m in Love”), doo-wop groups like The Parliaments (“I Can Feel the Ice Melting”), and fellow indie devotees like Antietam (“Naples”). These seasoned veterans, who are unafraid to buck convention, respect the irony of an iconic indie rock band producing an album half of whose material isn’t original. Across every wistful lyric and ballad, Yo La Tengo carries the unique self-confidence of a band that’s been around the block.
Their most recent release is a thoughtful concept album that traces the familiar arc of loss, grief, recovery and hope. The record opens post-trauma, in media res, as the protagonist pines for a recently-departed lover. She distracts herself, lusting defensively after other men while her “heart’s not in it.” Isolation overwhelms her — “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” vocalist Georgia Hubley wails. Momentary hope twinkles in “The Ballad of Red Buckets,” a swift number that sails atop melancholic guitar swells lifted straight from “Help!” Mid-album, though, the veneer of optimism cracks when the heartbroken protagonist “stopped to think” about the pain of it all. Brought low in “Automatic Doom,” a cover of Special Pillow, the despondent woman asks incredulously what horrible fate awaits her.
And then things get better. Night turns to morning and the mood lifts. The protagonist comes to a vague understanding that she “doesn’t need anyone” to fill the void, all the while refusing to abandon reconciliation entirely. Soon, she “feels the ice melting” and a thawing winter gives way to springtime. During “Somebody’s in Love,” the singers, like nesting birds, chirp in the outro.
As the album fades, Yo La Tengo reaches a resolution: love is here to stay, bruised and unrequited. And that’s okay. It’s where the album began, and it’s as good a place to end as any.
“Stuff Like That There” represents this long-awaited return to the beginning, both in its own musical narrative and in the thematic trajectory of Yo La Tengo’s catalogue. The album doesn’t so much recast the sounds and ideas first broadcast in their 1990 album debut “Fakebook” as recreate wholesale the ambient yearning the musical act first expressed in the year Prince and Madonna were topping the Billboard 200. The band still grasps for that easygoing aesthetic, which is weighed down by an understated worry, by a nighttime heaviness that evaporates by morning.