The soul teaches/ It never repeats
— From a book by poet Louis Zukofsky, quoting Rabbi Pinchas
How do you turn from fear?
— Yo La Tengo, Stuff Like That There
The work of Yo La Tengo is vast. I could not describe its color or shape to you, as those variables are constantly in flux, but its head outstrips the tops of cypresses behind it. Two big blurry eyes gaze at me while I write. I don’t think it knows what I am doing and I wonder whether it is aware of me at all as it looks through and past me in my little kitchen. What would this hulking being think if it were aware that I am reviewing it? It doesn’t look the least bit worried.
I am without reservations in my determination that it is alive. It must be alive, because it’s been around so long (surpassing my 29 years) and nothing has ever extinguished it or ceased its soft speech. I watch this being, the work of Yo La Tengo, make almost hushed journeys into the summer evening, neither sad nor afraid. It has an ageless face; its movements are unhurried.
All the while, songs pour forth. All these years, this being has not ceased its song. Yo La Tengo’s most recent creation, Stuff Like That There, in which they mostly cover other people’s songs, a la their celebrated 1990 breakthrough album, Fakebook, and even cover a few of their own too.
Generosity is alive and thriving on Stuff Like That There. Yo La Tengo plays songs by Sun Ra, the Parliaments, Great Plains, ’60s R&B girl group the Cookies, the Lovin’ Spoonful, Antietam, Hank Williams, the Cure and Special Pillow. Their execution is one of expert reverence, stripped and clearly showcasing what made the songs so memorable in the first place. They mostly leave the original structures intact, and the lyrics are cloudless.
After the opening cover of the Cookies’ “My Heart’s Not in It,” I find reward in one of the album’s two new songs, “Rickety.” Almost at once, my familiar, repetitive interior monologue is silenced; all thoughts and motions can only go forward. For the duration of “Rickety,” I’m a better listener than usual.
The door’s ajar, but closing fast
Voices tumble gently past me over swift, sandy percussion — towards apocalypse. Is this a caution for humankind to halt our excessiveness? It’s not the first time we’ve been warned. Vainly I obsess over my own small death. Yet even as I wonder, the song grows larger than my worry. The sound carries beyond any life (or death) on earth; it stretches above the trees and into the balmy summer night, as the work of Yo La Tengo is wont to do. Above me, the feeling of great mystery is enormous, but it ceases to bare its teeth — instead, it becomes fascinating and engaging, even welcoming. Momentarily, I may set my fear(s) aside.
Think of what we’re missing
And then take that thought and put it out of your head
(From “All Your Secrets,” a reworking of a track from 2009’s Popular Songs)
I listen to the sounds coming from the yard as Stuff Like That There progresses, and I realize that this isn’t Yo La Tengo covering other people; it is actually Yo La Tengo covering Yo La Tengo. These songs do not, however, repeat themselves. Like people should, they grow. Lines like the above take on an assuredness that one can only achieve with time and patience. It’s not that these songs are somehow better than the originals. That’s really not the point at all of making things. We create in order to further understand. These are simply new translations. It is rewarding to hear the close-up poetry of “Deeper into Movies,” another remake of one of their own songs (from 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One). Yo La Tengo, after all that’s happened, continues to send ardent signals into outer space. Renewed fascination aided by experience is what creates wisdom, a thing of magic.
Yo La Tengo has an incredible talent for seeming to disappear. I forget these are people’s voices, I forget it’s a band comprised of individuals. The subtlety of their presence, even in their singing, allows songs to speak for themselves, and that speech is constantly renewed in one great being of great feeling. The few songs I already know on this record, I must relearn, I must rethink. The ones I don’t know, I want to explore and hear their origins, and their origins are even wider and more compelling than the palette of their archivist. That’s what makes this a very generous record. It’s what makes it a wonderful record.
The sun went down a few hours ago. I remain in the kitchen, listening to Yo La Tengo. As I push aside the curtain to see it “late at night gazing out into the late at night,” my fear of darkness subsides a little. I am glad Yo La Tengo is here.