Yo La Tengo’s We Have Amnesia Sometimes Is an Ambient Surprise
The band's new LP is full of improvised COVID-era jamsMusic Reviews yo la tengo
It was surprising when Yo La Tengo opened up a Bandcamp page two weeks ago. It was more surprising still when it turned out to be the launch of a new album. For five straight days the band released a new song, and at the end of the week announced those songs make up the album known as We Have Amnesia Sometimes. You can stream it or download it now, or pick up the physical record when it comes out later this fall.
If you enjoy Yo La Tengo for their catchier or folkier material, be warned: The unconventional release fits a record that has more in common with the band’s compilation of instrumental film scores, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, than any of their official albums. It’s a collection of five long, droning improvisations recorded in their practice space in April, near the height of the COVID-19 spike in the tri-state area. If you appreciate Yo La Tengo’s dreamier, more atmospheric side, you’ll probably enjoy this; if you’re only interested in the next “Sugarcube” or “I’ll Be Around” or get tetchy when they play songs like “Night Falls on Hoboken” or the slow “Big Day Coming” live, you might want to steer clear.
In a way, Amnesia offers a glimpse of what the band’s last album, There’s a Riot Going On, could’ve sounded like. They don’t really write songs anymore, at least in a traditional sense; instead they record their rehearsal space improvisations and then find passages that a song can be built around. As Ira Kaplan explains in the notes on the Bandcamp page, that was their original reason for recording the improvisations on Amnesia, too, before they “decided to release some of the things we did right now.” There’s a Riot was already their loosest and least structured full-length, with suggestions of songs growing out of hums and glows, often going nowhere but usually getting exactly where they needed to be.
Amnesia is even less defined than that. Recorded with a single microphone, its five instrumental jams range from almost six minutes to almost nine-and-a-half minutes long. Even if you didn’t know how they were recorded, you’d be able to tell they were the kind of sketches the band would workshop on their way to writing more conventional pop songs. The tones and textures are instantly familiar to those with a deep knowledge of the band’s work, but instead of acting as a backdrop or launching pad for a song, or blossoming into anything more elaborate, they simply float along until they fade out, all warm buzzes and whirring murmurs.
Part of Yo La Tengo’s appeal is their diversity. They can jump from mellow folk rock to chaotic noise to indie rock anthems on a dime, slipping in a requested cover of “Hang On Sloopy” without ever having practiced it. We Have Amnesia Sometimes holds up one tool in their kit and reveals that it’s just as sharp as it’s ever been. These ambient drones might sound unfinished, but in their unhurried, unpretentious vibrations they capture the timeless yawning void of our current daily existence, the perennially narcotized blur of our homebound, shutdown society. (It’s also, um, great music to write to.) If you’re sympathetic to Yo La Tengo’s less formal and radio-friendly moments, you might respond well to this one.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.