In the rock & roll book of love, the miserable couples get to have all the fun. From Fleetwood Mac to X, countless bands have grooved to the static between two lovers ripping each other apart. But Yo La Tengo have spent their long and noble career proving there’s another side to the story. Guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are married people who like each other, quite the rock & roll novelty. After fifteen years of making great music together, they’re indie rock’s most revered artists, and part of their appeal is their enduring, endearing bond as the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of the garage. They’re the most creatively fierce married band mates in music history — well, except for maybe Missing Persons.
The Hoboken, New Jersey, trio’s beautiful new album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, is a quiet, delicate meditation on this bond. Kaplan and Hubley sing their most confessional, intimate lyrics ever, over whispery guitars, brushed percussion, vibes and organ drones. It’s a spell of blissful, psychedelic make-out music, what Revolver might have sounded like if the Beatles had tried putting “Here, There and Everywhere” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” into the same song. Bassist-vocalist James McNew takes a supporting role as Hubley and Kaplan tell their love story, a testimony to a life of promises kept and burdens shared and secrets entrusted. Obviously, we’re not talking top-of-the-pops material here, but it’s the softer side of Yo La Tengo, with Kaplan cutting down on his famous guitar feedback for the finest batch of marital ballads since Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask.
The last time Yo La Tengo got this heavily into atmospherics, on 1992’s May I Sing With Me, they sounded dour and murky. But since then they’ve learned the secret that has eluded keyboard droners from Tangerine Dream to Tortoise: Atmospherics are a dime a dozen compared with actual songs. And these songs are great — heartfelt, rugged, melodically sumptuous enough to keep unfolding after dozens of spins, full of folk-rock flesh and blood. In “Last Days of Disco,” Kaplan sings about his first dance with Hubley, his Everydude voice full of rapt wonder: “And the song said, ‘Let’s be happy’/I was happy/It never made me happy before.” They trade memories of their early days — Ira trying not to stare, Georgia wobbling on her platform shoes — with a narrative flair they’ve never even attempted before.
The songs face up to the daily struggles of the adult conjugal mojo. But even in stark confessions like “Tears Are in Your Eyes,” it’s inspirational to hear these two legendary hearts sticking up for each other musically when the lyrical going gets tough. And Then Nothing has its weak spots, especially the draggy opener, “Everyday,” and fans will miss the up-tempo rockers. But if Yo La Tengo’s 1997 gem, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, covered every base like an indie Sign o’ the Times, And Then Nothing is their Lovesexy, picking one element of their game and taking it to places that neither they nor anybody else has reached before. The grand finale, “Night Falls on Hoboken,” is a haze of guitar twang that holds up for seventeen minutes without either climaxing or falling apart — kind of like a solid marriage, which is probably the point.
The best Yo La Tengo show I’ve ever seen was one that got canceled a few years ago in Washington, D.C. After the club lost its electricity, the band just brought its acoustic guitars out to the sidewalk to do a few freebies for the faithful. They played the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” as if it were a summer-camp memory, a folk song as ancient as “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” On And Then Nothing, they capture that same communal vibe, but with all their electricity intact. And while Kaplan and Hubley take the spotlight, the album is also a tribute to McNew (who makes his own dandy solo records under the name Dump). Couples need neighbors — or, rather, couples have neighbors, and if they’re lucky, they get supportive friends like McNew, which is part of the story they’re telling here.
There’s no point pretending that this album will make Yo La Tengo rich and famous. But if the connection between rock & roll and romance still means anything to you, if guitars play a key role in your bodily chemistry, if you don’t gag at the idea of record-collector geeks having sex, and if you don’t turn the page as soon as you read the words “influenced by the Velvet Underground,” And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out will open you up to intense new pleasures. Sometimes the lovers really are more fun than the fighters.