We have a certain high-tolerance for the diminishing returns of our favorite bands as they get older. It’s why Bob Dylan’s last four albums — which I think are adequate at best — are heralded like masterpieces now. We expect bad albums when artists get older, and they promise to play the hits when we see them on the tour in support of their new albums.
That’s why indie rock O.G.s Yo La Tengo’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass was so shocking; it wasn’t bad, it was great. We expected Yo La Tengo to slide into irrelevance, especially after the languid pacing of their first true clunker, Summer Sun. I Am Not Afraid showed Yo La Tengo could be as sonically adventurous as the whippersnappers who were challenging their throne.
Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo’s 12th (or 14th, depending on what you count) LP, doesn’t necessarily negate the band’s recently reestablished vitality, because their LP as Condo Fucks from earlier this year showed they can still shit-kick with the best of them. It just plays like the follow-up to Summer Sun: The songs here are sleepy, mellow and soul-influenced. Apart from the two closing songs, which add up to 27 minutes, Popular Songs finds the band crafting solid indie rock that is more by-the-numbers than Yo La Tengo has been in the past.
Popular Songs opens with the smoky “Here to Fall,” an In Through the Out Door-era Led Zeppelin meditation built on rippling organs and solemn strings. Ira Kaplan sounds as if he just woke up from bed, and upon realizing his band’s sonically adventurous career, he wonders aloud, “What else is there for us to do?” Apparently the answer is soul pastiche: The band channels the Zombies on “Periodically Double or Triple” and a rhythm-deficient Motown on the duet “If It’s True,” “All Your Secrets” and “Avalon, or Someone Very Similar.” On any other late-period Yo La Tengo album, those songs might provide a pop-grounding to the out there sounds. Here, where the entire album moves at a chilled-out pace, they get old after a handful of spins.
The members of Yo La Tengo still know their way around a good groove or two (“Periodically” especially) and they still can set off guitar fireworks when they feel like it (“And the Glitter Is Gone” stands amongst their best noise freakouts). But Popular Songs as a whole is an unsatisfying album. It passes by with a minimal amount of memorable moments, demonstrating that, if nothing else, Yo La Tengo could crank out albums like this with minimal effort for an eternity. Hopefully they won’t.