Every time I think about Yo La Tengo’s There’s a Riot Going On, I come back to the same essential question: whether I find this album more beautiful than boring, or whether I find it more boring than beautiful. Historically, much of Yo La Tengo’s prettiest music flirts with simplicity, but what makes it great are the sparks of sonic ingenuity and sheer electric vigor it carries within. The band’s most compelling songs beat with a captivating lifeline that steers them clear of banality, regardless of whether the music is noisy or reserved.
Yo La Tengo’s finest slow tracks find power and a degree of freedom in the slow and scaled-back, in long, languid instrumental ostinatos, in mantric progressions, in Ira Kaplan’s whispered falsetto and Georgia Hubley’s disarming tenderness. Good examples of this can be found throughout the band’s career, whether it be on brilliant early albums Painful (“Big Day Coming,” “The Whole of the Law”) and Electr-O-Pura (“The Hour Grows Late,” “Don’t Say A Word [Hot Chicken #2]”), the excellent And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (“Tears Are In Your Eyes,” “Last Days of Disco”), or the solid, more recent Fade (“Two Trains”). These tunes, although sedate, are texturally rich and emotionally magnetic, hitting with as much force as the tidal waves of reverb and feedback heard in clear influences Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.
Most of There’s a Riot Going On is slow. In fact, the only thing that could even be called a “rock song” here is the fantastic, vulnerable “For You Too,” which plays like a classic jammer from early-2000s-era Yo La Tengo. The almost-ambient “Dream Dream Away” has a great feeling for movement, and it maintains a sense of spontaneity throughout its repeated progressions. “Shortwave” is the track I’ve listened to most on this album; it’s a dense, intricately layered composition that evokes Grouper, Stars of the Lid, and Tim Hecker with its airy whirlwinds of voice, synth, guitar, and (I think) bowed bass. In terms of mood and gravity, “Shortwave” equals any instrumental the band has produced in the past 30 years. “What Chance Have I Got,” another major winner here, channels the silvery, midnight moods of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, especially in the relaxed way that its sounds hazily create the feeling of something whole. Its laid-back bass line gives way beautifully to piano, providing a delicate foundation for the song’s spellbinding percussion and Hubley’s characteristically wistful vocals.
The album’s cracks start to show in its patterns: a lot of these songs are built around loops or repeating motifs that run with little or no variation. These tracks often feel constructed in waves and layers, spiraling outward from an apparent nucleus. Kaplan said as much in a recent interview, where he compared the band’s process on There’s A Riot Going On to that of their work in film scoring. “It becomes more like one person will have an idea, we’ll record it, then someone else will add something to that,” he explained. “It becomes one block at a time. That was really how we made this record, and recorded and came up with these songs. There was a lot of sitting around a computer.”
This layered approach is felt throughout the album, for better or worse. “Forever” is a clear casualty of this; its doo-wop refrain and groovy bass line could have been interesting with variation, but their sameness becomes tedious and even repellent the longer they continue. In the same vein, the reversed guitar loop of “Ashes” becomes stale, ultimately eclipsing the dreamy cadence of the rest of the song. “Esportes Casual” is a nice palate cleanser, but it borders on also being monotonous.
Additionally, the album’s lyrics sometimes feel lazy. Take, for example, “Polynesia #1,” which sports the apathetic “I’m going to Polynesia/ I’m going at my leisure/ I’m going before the snow flies/ I’m going as the crow flies.” “Out of the Pool” is caught in a rut with its techno-thriller bass line, which is disappointing since it comes from James McNew, one of indie rock’s most engaging bassists; its lyrics read like discarded text from Radiohead’s Amnesiac, which isn’t necessarily bad, but doesn’t seem like the right fit for this record.
It’s been said that There’s a Riot Going On was conceived to play as a respite from the chaos of daily life, which is evidenced by the dissonance between the album’s title and its overall vibe. But neither side of this discord rings true with reality: there aren’t really riots going on, at least not ones informed by radical politics, and, conversely, I wonder how productive it is to create art that encourages us to feel safe and calm when we really have no reason to be. Therefore, There’s a Riot Going On’s theory doesn’t quite match up to its execution, and its parts are greater than the whole. So, is it more beautiful, or is it more boring? The problem is that it’s often too difficult to tell the difference.