Hall of Records: Yo La Tengo, And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (February 22, 2000, Matador)
by Michael Tatum
It began, as all romances do, with the boy making a joke about the inedibility of Lay’s cappuccino flavored potato chips. That was me, immediately connecting to M. because we appreciated each other’s sense of humor and verbal flair. A year older than me, she joked our forthcoming coffee date was a “testing plan,” while I ridiculed Sheryl Crow lyrics: “For example: ‘Every time you hear the rolling thunder/You turn around before the lightning strikes.’ Thunder comes AFTER lightning, so how the hell is that possible?” Because we met on an online dating app and our first physical meeting was six days out, we continued communicating via texts and phone calls, knowing each other only through pictures and words. I swooned over the sexy way her scarf wrapped around her neck in one photograph, promising her I would build on to that list of compliments with entries that would be “lengthy, detailed, and if I’m lucky, PG-13.” She said my looks and “infinite charm” reminded her of Robert Downey, Jr. We shared what we thought it might be like to kiss each other — her pastoral fantasy took place on a picnic blanket, my more fanciful one through a field of wheat. Without actually indulging in “sexting,” our flirtation escalated into more explicit territory, as did the seriousness of our proclamations of devotion to each other — “You kind of seem too good to be true,” she professed, while I swore she had set me on fire. She revealed I was the most romantic person she had ever met. I sent her a video for Yo La Tengo’s “Our Way to Fall,” one of the most loving songs I know. Reality seeped in for me slightly, as I realized as I was having these “feelings” for someone I’d never actually laid eyes on — “You’ve seen my photo, my personality, my words…don’t you think you’ve seen me?” she asked. But on the morning before we were to meet, worry finally came over her, as it should have for me: “I don’t want to jump on a runaway train and then wonder how I got there later.”
When we first laid eyes on each other in front of that coffee shop, we embraced immediately, locking lips passionately, as we knew we would. Trim and stylish, she was breathtaking, looking a decade younger than her physical age. We at last began to have a real conversation, about all the things we had put off in the knowledge that it would be better shared in person. I told her about my often difficult marriage and my struggles with mental illness. She had also had a loveless marriage — to a woman — and although she was both intelligent and accomplished, her last relationship was with a man who turned out to a be a con artist fresh out of prison. Within the hour I escorted her to a superb taco joint down the street, after which we held hands walking down the sidewalk, kissing more near a bench overlooking the beach. At the end of the night, we went home — not together, as we had agreed beforehand. And the next day she called me up and told me that she didn’t feel any chemistry between us, that I was much different online and on the phone than I was in person, which shocked her as much as it broke my heart — a total illusory hurt based on nothing but the intensity of shared words rather than depth of feeling, amplified through the codependency of two very insecure people, but a hurt nevertheless. With both of us in tears, she asked if we could be friends, which I told her was impossible. Two weeks later, after my shirt pocket twice insisted on Facetiming her, she texted me something that had been on her mind. I had such a sexy, soothing voice — maybe I could go into voice acting, or reading audiobooks? I told her she had been reckless with my feelings and that I never wanted to speak to her again — until, of course, an attack of ethics drove me to consult her the following month for the piece you are now reading.
This may seem like a peculiar way to introduce you to Yo La Tengo’s great 2000 record And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, even if the gorgeous “Our Way to Fall,” the song I sent to M., is its second track. But while online relationships like the one I described often telescope six years into as many days — M. and I would often quote to each other that line in Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” about “hot hot blazes come down to smoke and ash” — Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, the band’s two principals, on drums and guitar respectively, have been married for over thirty. They shroud their personal lives in so much secrecy that Jon Dolan, writing about the band in 1997 for the Phoenix New Times, admitted that when he first interviewed them four years earlier, he had no idea they were hitched. Yet beginning with the album they released that year, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, these two very introverted people began singing songs about their coupling that seemed almost telegraphed from their private, unspoken thoughts. Ira’s “Our Way to Fall” for example, a first-person reminiscence the listener can only assume stars him and Georgia (they never refer to each other in song by name, but they do like to tease their listeners into the biographical fallacy) chronicles not a night of passion, but him staring at his shoes while she sings “The Way You Look Tonight,” one assumes to the ceiling, shyly. This is not the story of a hot, hot blaze like the one that engulfed M. and me. This is the story of two brightly glowing embers and how they radiate more tenderness than anything dreamt of in Joni Mitchell’s philosophy.
Yo La Tengo released four classic records from 1995 to 2003, all worth owning. The peak of these is the second in the run, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, which finds them hitting their stride as musicians and songwriters as they zip through not only the melodic noise rock that made them critics’ darlings, but also ambient, bossa nova, surf, ’70s singer-songwriter rock-pop, and more, spurred on I imagine by versatile bassist and multi-instrumentalist James McNew, who joined the band for 1993’s Painful. The focus is quieter, more electronic on 2003’s underrated Summer Sun, with guest spots ceded to jazz musicians on several tracks, most notably upright bassist William Parker. 1995’s Electr-o-pura apotheosizes their earlier Velvet Underground-derived style, after which they moved on, one surmises, almost by necessity — by that point, indie rock was moving on from basic guitar-bass-drums. That leaves their slowest, most atmospheric record, 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, probably the least immediately ingratiating of the four. Georgia puts away her sticks for brush strokes, but sometimes resorting to drum machines, like the squishy pattern that saunters through “Saturday.” The only anachronistic guitar rave-up — and boy, it’s a bracer— is Ira’s “Cherry Chapstick.” Keyboards predominate, with room for mallets, vibraphones, and cellos.
The record’s two bookends make for a good acid test. The haunting “Everyday” is the most foreboding Yo La opening track ever, many of which are friendly, major-key instrumentals. It deals with depression — the major subtext of their songs, underneath the monogamy themes — not just your own, but that of your partner, and bringing him or her through it. “Want to be Paul Le Mat in 1980,” Georgia murmurs blankly (perhaps thinking of the opening scene in that year’s Melvyn and Howard, in which LeMat’s Melvyn cheerfully warbles Christmas carols while driving down a desert road), as Susie Ibarra’s percussion percolates underneath her vocal. On the back side there’s the absolutely stunning seventeen-minute finale “Night Falls in Hoboken,” which like many of the band’s songs occur in the bedroom — not during coitus, but that brief window of time before you fall asleep. It’s sung in resplendent three part harmony, but the scene is one of marital discord: “Come on, let’s leave our misery/And crawl toward where we want to be/Can’t we try? Can’t we try?/Come on, sleep one night peacefully.” It ends with a hypnotic coda of late night guitar, keyboard washes, and amplifier hums that suggest the serenity and even closure the lyric never brings.
The emotional heart of the album lies in four songs strung back to back, two of Ira’s followed by two of Georgia’s. It begins during the “Last Days of Disco,” with Georgia waddling in platform shoes, Ira mistaking Andrea True for Anita Ward, and the latter observing in a chorus that refers to no song recorded by either artist: “And the song said ‘Let’s be happy’/I was happy/It never made me happy before/And the song said ‘Don’t be lonely’/It makes me lonely/I hear it and I’m lonely more and more/Where I belong/Where I belong.” Romanticizing loneliness as the place where one belongs might be the nadir of wallowing self-pity, but as you get closer to the band — you’ll notice I refer to them by their Christian names, these are artists that engender intimacy — you get the idea that it’s more about being lonely together, of finding a kindred spirit with whom you can share the quiet. This is followed by the gorgeous “The Crying of Lot G,” which turns Thomas Pynchon’s novel into a titular joke to deflate the song’s heartbreaking subject: not knowing how to handle your lover’s shifting moods and emotional outbursts. It contains two extraordinary inner dialogues, one of which goes: “I wonder why we have so much trouble/Cheering each other up sometimes/When one or the other of us is down/Instead it’s like, you know if you’re in a bad mood/I look at you and I think/‘Maybe she knows something I don’t know/Maybe I should be upset.’” With musical shimmers reaching out like fingertips touching a cheek, Ira implores in the chorus: “Don’t have to smile at me/Don’t have to talk/All that I ask is you/Stop and remember/It isn’t always this way.” The narrative opens with Georgia slamming the back door in his face. It has no resolution.
Georgia responds by covering George McRae’s “You Can Have It All,” a minor hit from the same album that spawned the great “Rock Your Baby” — both have that same wonderful Miami disco flavor associated with KC and the Sunshine Band (Howard “KC” Casey and Richard Finch wrote and produced the original recordings). Yo La’s retooling has an awkward magic about it, from the way Georgia’s frail soprano heroically reaches for that high note in the chorus to David Henry’s now-you-hear-it-now-you-don’t cello, with Ira and James bop-bopping in the background like schoolyard chums. She follows this bit of optimism with one of the most heartbreaking expressions of vulnerability I’ve ever heard, the album’s centerpiece, “Tears Are In Your Eyes.” Musically speaking, it’s a lonely guitar ballad in the vein of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes,” alluring and compelling on its own musical terms. But lyrically it concerns something I don’t think I’ve heard addressed in any other song: a woman comforting a man breaking down. Normally you get the reverse, men doing the same for women, with men only admitting such expressions of helplessness in the context of an upbeat or ironic setting (Hank Williams’ “There’s a Tear in My Beer” comes to mind). “You tell me that you haven’t slept in days/You tell me sleeping only makes you tired anyway,” she sings, evoking a problem to which anyone who suffers from depression, and bipolar disorder in particular, can relate (as does another line, “Summer’s here and the time is wrong,” a play on Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets”). Ira’s weeping solo is as much a response to her compassion as her sympathetic brushstroke fills are to his, a simpatico musical dialogue that reveals how close they are to each other, how ardor and anguish have played out between them, and how each keeps them together.
You’re probably wondering where the principals in our story ended up. M. amended her Match profile page to say that her purpose on the site was purely to “window shop,” and that she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. She kept the picture up that she made especially for me, a potato chip lounging in a deck chair sipping a cappuccino. Although she intended it as flattery, I took one of her comments about me before we met so to heart — “Either you are something very special, or a completely needy wackadoodle who’s really good at flattering women with your words” — that I performed an emotional inventory on myself, coming to the conclusion that she was at least half-right on both counts, and I was still worthy of love either way. Ira and Georgia continued making records, albeit at a more modest level of musical achievement, though their mostly acoustic 2016 covers record Stuff Like That There is something to treasure. On “Season of the Shark,” a bouncy number off Summer Sun, the chatty Ira promised he’d take interview questions for Georgia if she needed him to. I saw Yo La Tengo a few years ago on a CBS morning show. He’s still doing it. Such is the way of true love, don’t you think?