Ambience and Space in This Stupid World

Design by Chela Simón-Trench

The first song on Yo La Tengo’s latest album, This Stupid World, introduces instruments and ideas one by one. The harmonic uniformity of “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” combined with its built-up texture and ominous industrial noise, foreshadows the use of similar techniques in the songs to come. But if these aspects of “Sinatra Drive Breakdown” make it an ideal introductory track, This Stupid World is an album full of introductions. Songs like the title track, “Tonight’s Episode,” and “Until it Happens” have musical arcs that advance but never quite resolve. As listeners, we cannot help but ask ourselves—where is this all going? Has that arrival we have been conditioned to anticipate disappeared? Have we been unknowingly taken onto a road with no destination?

The album’s ambiguous trajectory reflects Yo La Tengo’s career-defining zest for both conventional songwriting and ambient jam sessions. On one hand, their discography contains loops of dreamy noise that end in the same place they started (“Green Arrow” or “Ohm”). On the other, there are soft, bittersweet love ballads (“My Little Corner of the World” or “You Can Have it All”). “Aselestine,” the second single off this latest album, belongs most closely to the latter category. Like something by British dreampop band Mojave 3, the vocals are an expansive whisper, while the song’s texture—heavily reliant on its combination of humming synthesizers and acoustic strumming—resembles The War on Drugs’s iconic track “Thinking of a Place.” This is the song that, played live, would be met with a crowd of swaying lighters and iPhone flashlights.

Yo La Tengo’s more light-hearted songs stay close to their tonal centers. Major changes in the music lie rarely in rhythm or harmony, but rather in texture and volume. Accordingly, tension develops but is never released. Songs hint at escape, only to return where they are ultimately most comfortable. 

That said, on This Stupid World, Yo La Tengo creates sonic worlds you never want to escape. In “Brain Capers,” a baseline echoed by reverb-laden guitar and followed by trilling synths gives the impression of extraterrestrial bubbles. The closing sequence of “Miles Away”—a heady drone that phases out to an electronic pulse and ultimately to a stripped-down synth solo—leaves you pleasantly discombobulated. 

Yo La Tengo might not grant listeners narrative gratification, but they do offer a timeless ambience. This is the perfect soundtrack for a long drive. The band’s interest is not motion—it’s space. Rather than pushing the listener towards any one direction, the album constructs the bounds to move within. In that sense, Yo La Tengo invites its listener to imagine a story of its own.

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