While Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo has been around for almost 30 years, it’s been 15 since the release of the seminal, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Ever since that genre-hopping mix tape disguised as an album came out in 1997, the trio of Ira Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley, and James McNew have continued to release consistent, satisfying releases about every three years. It’s not a bad thing to know what you’re going to get from these encyclopedic minds of rock -- albums filled with nods to favorite bands or songs, lauded by indie critics while getting overlooked by the mainstream, albums that upon release have every fan asking where it stands in relation to the total catalog. Enter Fade, their 14th entry into the “what does it all mean” derby, and fans are once again left with something truly meaningful, if a bit melancholy around the edges.
Fade is rather concise by YLT standards. Gone from this record are the sprawling 10+ minute dirges long-time fans typically use to zone out and question their life choices. Admittedly the album is bookended by songs topping out at six minutes, but in the realm of Yo La Tengo that’s equivalent to a three minute Justin Timberlake dance blip. Befitting its title, Fade is a meditation on life, transition, and death, and the difficulties decoding the meaning to any of the three. “Ohm” opens the record like a locomotive, its percolating beat chug-a-lugging down the track. The trio sings of a unified loss of someone close, before Kaplan alone eulogizes the loss using one of his iconic solo freak outs. The song ends with the band repeating ‘this thing will float’, adding a nautical layer as the listener drifts along with the record. “Paddle Forward” finds McNew and Hubley assuring us that the water is fine -- it’s alright to take chances out there on the sea we call life. The string laden and soulful love song “Is That Enough” is a catchy homage to the 60s; while it may not replace “Our Way To Fall” as the ultimate hipster first wedding dance, it is certainly a lovely way to get the boat launched off the pier.
With Fade the extended jams are omitted, Kaplan’s freak-outs are significantly reined in, and most songs are delivered at a volume that’s less than eardrum-shattering, but there are moments where YLT almost lets it all go. The restraint is apparent on the motorik “Stupid Things” -- it’s a song teetering on a manic brink as drums pulse on and on, and in classic YLT form, on some more. Arguably the best track on the album, “Stupid Things” could break off its fragile hinges at any second as it tries to make up its mind about a direction, but rather than driving over the cliff into “Spec Bebop” territory, you instead find Kaplan playing a muted solo perfectly calibrated for the organized chaos of the song.
The second half of the album is filled with introspection and memoriam. The acoustic ballad “I’ll Be Around” finds Kaplan looking for loved ones lost in space as the tones of the organ sigh peacefully in the background. The drum machine of “Two Trains” is akin to the locomotive engine slowing as it reaches a destination – it’s a song filled with doubt as time is running out and the panic of the unknown awaits us. Credits roll over the upbeat trumpets of closing track “Before We Run,” and you’re left wondering - Could this be the last album Yo La Tengo will ever make? Probably not, but by opening the lid on mortality and aging, with the acknowledgement that time isn’t on their side, YLT gives that aura to Fade . Perhaps the album is overcast with melancholy because this thinking man’s band, unlike other aging bands and musicians that have released new albums in the past few years, realize they have less time ahead of them compared to what’s behind them. It only makes sense to craft an album marked by potential finality before it’s too late. Lucky for us fans, if Fade is the last we hear from Yo La Tengo, they’re going out on a remarkably high note.