Yo La Tengo’s Painful turns 25
Sure, Yo La Tengo had calmed down some, mellowed out some. The Hoboken, New Jersey-based band knew – really knew – what it was about. One can sense this in “Big Day Coming”, the opening track of their 1993 breakthrough Painful, even before Ira Kaplan opens his mouth to sing. The song sidles into view in the same way a summer evening is suddenly just there: crop-dusting organ motifs spinning through a cloud bank of rainbow organ chord vapor, an ambient mist, guitars’ glancing presence under-emphasized. Don’t worry, they’re in no hurry – and neither is Kaplan, who approaches us as a confidante, a confederate. His tone is mild, not quite meek. “Let’s turn wake up the neighbors, let’s turn up our amps,” he suggests, quietly, as if those neighbors are listening in. “The way we used to, without a plan.”
Following a first act where irrepressible rock ‘n’ roll and effects-pedal skronk reigned, Painful served the first clear notice that Yo La Tengo were capable of combining and elevating these inclinations in the name of capital-A Art. Beloved and cult-venerated as they remain, there was a marked breathlessness and impatience to the band’s pre-Painful recordings. With new bassist James McNew on board, singer/guitarist Kaplan and singer/drummer Georgia Hubley leaned into greater pacing, more deliberation. Maybe an indie-rock album could be explicitly cinematic. Maybe domesticity could be as much of an adventure as a tryst. Maybe there was true, anthemic magic in drifting off to sleep in a strange room while bathing in the cathode-ray glow of television static.
“Nowhere Near” – a more gradual, spotlight-prom-dance tune than “Big Day Coming” – can still induce chills in me. If “Coming” signaled a shift in artistically camaraderie, “Near” is a testament to the bliss and full-scale surrender falling in love engenders – the moment (and moments in years to come) when a partner becomes irresistibly central to the exclusion of all others, literally eclipsing the world; Hubley delivers it with a cool, earnest tenderness. The raucous, shoegaze-y “From a Motel 6” fast-forwards to the cynicism of road trip spats and makes epic majesty out of zoning out and (almost) making up, if not making out. The next morning’s pillow talk could be autumnal bummer “A Worrying Thing,” or it could be spare, devotional duet “The Whole of the Law.” No less valid are the surrounding instrumental moods: the clawing, impassioned sprawl of “I Heard You Looking,” or eavesdropping, satisfying interlude “Superstar-Watcher” pausing to give the bassist some.
While the next quarter century would find Yo La Tengo veering in many different directions – some fruitful, other ill-advised – it was with Painful that commanded the band be taken seriously as wry pragmatists unafraid to slam whammy bars or use “don’t you think that’s a little trite?” as punctuation to close a verse. It still sounds deeper, stronger and truer than most music made by anyone.