“We could be married,” goes the most naive non-political lyric in pop history, “and then we’d be happy.” If it sounds like the road to utopia when couched in the sonic bliss of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” imagining the real-life Brian Wilson five, ten, twenty years down the line is an awfully convincing rebuttal: holding each other close the whole night through ain’t really an option in Behind the Music.
But Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo aren’t angling for any VH1 gigs, and their recently released ninth LP, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, picks up where Pet Sounds was afraid to leave off: at the point when marriage isn’t an Elysian ideal but a fact of life. Yo La Tengo is, after all, led by ex-critic Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, arguably the most famous married couple in indie rock history. Along with a revolving door of bassists that finally shut nearly a decade ago with the acquisition of James McNew, the pair has spent the past 15 years writing its own version of rock history. It’s an aesthetic and academic sense that eases off show and saturnalia in favor of a denser, subtler, ultimately more rewarding approach.
With each album, the band has pushed its margins ever so slightly outward. By 1997’s modern classic I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a near-encyclopedic tour de force loaded with nods to bubblegum, shoegazer, bossa nova, Patty Hearst, Grand Funk Railroad, Arthur Lyman and, of course, the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” Yo La Tengo’s little corner of the world was an awfully big tent. If I Can Hear was the band’s piece de resistance, And Then Nothing is something of an organic retreat, less a logical extension than a declaration of exemption from a trio that’s said all it could want to say about genre.
In other words, And Then Nothing breathes anachronism with every note. It’s a remarkably intimate recording, almost uniformly subdued in volume and tempo, and at 77 minutes it becomes something of a rumination on atmosphere. Sure, two of the best songs are the lone feedback rocker (“Cherry Chapstick”) and a sincere disco cover (Harry Wayne Casey’s “You Can Have It All”), but the point of the album isn’t climax or catharsis; it’s the exhausted, loving sigh that weaves its way through every song.
It’s the same sigh that comes out in Kaplan’s vocals – his gentlest and best ever – as he signs the most nakedly sincere ballads the band has ever put to record. His marital odes are more wistful recollections than linear narratives: the near-whispered verses of “Our Way to Fall” and “Last Days of Disco” find Kaplan recounting fragmentary images from his first encounters with Hubley as if he’s thumbing through a scrapbook. It might be pure nostalgia, but it’s riveting stuff, because Kaplan has an unerring eye for emotional detail. “Sometimes you say all we do is fight,” he tells Georgia in an aside on the lovely “Crying of Lot G,” “and I think, ‘Gee, I don’t know that that’s true:’” 99 out of 100 songwriters would pretend that they did.
For all their lush sonic detail – Hubley’s jazz-influenced percussion, Kaplan’s droning keyboard, McNew’s ever-sensitive bass and occasional bells and cello – the songs of Kaplan’s marriage suite are the album’s least robust, melodically. Which is, no doubt, part of the point: the songs are as much about the ennui and emotional distance that come with the passage of time as they are about the sensations – positive and negative – of the moments they describe. Fitting stuff for an album whose opening mantra promises to “embrace the beauty of the everyday.”
The rest of the songs, the almost evisceratingly direct duet “Tears Are in Your Eyes” excepted, are more tone poems than autobiographies. “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” (whose title comes from an episode of The Simpsons – obscurantists be damned!) and “You Can Have It All” bop along serenely, leavening And Then Nothing’s most vulnerable emotional moments with monologues whose shared narrations are willfully banal.
Even the album’s most exotic impulses – Susie Ibarra’s off-kilter drum machine-esque percussion on “Saturday;” the gentle white noise and oceanic surf licks of “Everyday” – are as unassuming as the epic closer, “Night Falls in Hoboken,” which spends almost 18 minutes sleepwalking beatifically through a legendarily ugly town. By the time “Hoboken” and Nothing are winding down, utopia seems both awfully close and entirely obsolete. Happy, indeed.