By the official tally, There’s a Riot Going On is the fifteenth studio album from Yo La Tengo, and the band’s first of predominantly new material since the masterful and underrated Fade, released in 2013. It’s been over thirty years since their first LP, a span in which Yo La Tengo developed into a critical darling fairly quickly and basically settled into a zone of rapturous reviews and only meager commercial success. It would be a cause of chagrin if not for the seeming contentment the band has with their place in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Like Jonathan Richman, they seem genially content in their cult heroism, playing to the faithful and following their collective wry, understated muse.
The title of the album is at once a reflection of the upended state of the society and an ironic assessment of the music delivered. The occasional swerve toward noisy squalls notwithstanding, You La Tengo’s general approach favors the sober and downbeat. The songs muse rather than snarl, striving for a sense of peace within the agitation of modern life. There’s discontent and anxiety aplenty, but that’s no cause for a sonic ruckus. There’s potency in the soft and the ruminative, too.
Being fair, there’s also a certain amount of snooziness to this approach. I’m charmed by Yo Tengo when they commit to the shrewd and sedate, but I know better than to put it on at parties. Even I start drifting on the mid-album triad of “Dream Dream Away,” “Shortwave,” and “Above the Sound.” The tracks are unmistakably rich and complex, which doesn’t necessarily prevent them from cohering into a downbeat drone. The situation could have been improved with a simple adjustment in sequencing, since there’s variety to be found on the album, such as “Shades of Blue,” which tinkers with the formula or sunny nineteen-sixties pop, and the band’s take on Esquivel-styled samba lounge with “Esportes Casual.” Even a track like “For You Too” finds appealing texture within its highway steadiness.
“We’re just going to find a way to make it through difficult times and that, in itself, is positive,” singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan told Bob Odenkirk in a recent interview. “But some of that can be acknowledging and not hiding from your sadness or your fear. So there’s a lot of sadness, but I think there’s something really joyful in expressing that sadness.” That mission is fulfilled marvelously on There’s a Riot Going On, which is celebratory because of its resolute truthfulness. On the almost unbearably tender “Forever,” Kaplan sings, “Laugh away the bad times/ Lie about what’s to come/ The less said, the better/ Let’s drink until we’re dumb.” Even the minor issues with the album hold a worthiness. As the songs remind, there’s grace in imperfection