Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo’s 12th album in nearly 25 years, only sounds like the title of a greatest-hits collection. Its 12 tracks offer variations on what fans have come to expect from the band, but those variations come filled with surprises. The album-opening “Here To Fall” begins with the slow tick-tock of echo-laden noise, but the sudden entrance of pounding drums and insistent strings better represents Popular Songs. Attention, in other words, must be paid.
Like 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, Popular Songs gives up early on sticking with a consistent sound. Two lovely Georgia Hubley-sung tracks follow—the second built around little more than a click and a drone—before giving way to “Nothing To Hide,” a catchy bit of garage rock that wouldn’t sound too out of place on this spring’s irreverent, pseudonymously released covers album Fuckbook. It isn’t the only throwback, either. Tracks inspired by classic pop and soul—including the lovely duet “If It’s True”—dominate the middle of the album. As usual, they sound less like imitation than a band remaking its record collection in its own image.
Also as usual, that includes stretching some songs past their breaking point and putting them back together. The album ends with three epic tracks. The best among them, “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven,” keeps repeating the same sentiment—“We’ll walk hand in hand”—against a shifting background as if trying to reinvent the love song as something that stretches out to infinity rather than the sort of thing that fills a 45, then snaps off. It says a lot about Yo La Tengo: Whether it’s a single song or a career, they’re in it for the long haul.