Over the course of the group’s 22-year career, Yo La Tengo has endured numerous transformations. Folk, punk, garage rock, shoegazer, electronica -- the band has been through all of these genres and more.
On this, their tenth full-length album, the group’s members seem to have finally grown tired. Rather than dedicating the entire record to one genre, as they often have, they chose to mix it up. The result is a 77-minute bear of an album. From start to finish, it is just plain dense.
The record begins and ends with extended, primarily instrumental jams. Just listening to them is tiring. On the first, “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m a Goodkind,” a repetitive bass riff sets the tempo while guitarist Ira Kaplan solos randomly and sings unintelligibly for almost 11 minutes.
From there, the mood changes completely for the lite-pop “Beanbag Chair,” which is, fittingly, the album’s first single. Slow ballad “I Feel Like Going Home” follows, once again altering the mood entirely.
The next five tracks are equally disparate from one to another. The group jumps from jazz to synth-pop to modern indie to alt-county, all with great ease.
This is what makes I Am Not Afraid… so difficult to listen to. It plays more like a compilation than an album by one three-piece outfit. It just lacks consistency.
It could be worse, though. Consistency at times is nice, but repetition seldom is. In this age of indie rock, it is much too easy for a band to achieve success with a slew of nearly identical compositions. In that respect, I Am Not Afraid is a breath of fresh air, a welcome change from the norm.
It is in the record’s second half that the listener should begin to understand just how refreshing it is. It begins with the brooding instrumental “Daphnia.” At nine minutes, the track allows listeners time to fully reflect on the eight tracks before it and prepare for what is to come.
From there, the band picks up where it left off, except now it has the audience’s full attention. The five tracks following “Daphnia” lead up to “The Story of Yo La Tengo,” the second extended jam. It runs a full minute longer than the opener, but it is much more bearable. Kaplan’s audible vocals combined with a bass line that actually changes give the track the sense of direction that “Pass the Hatchet…” lacks.
The only major failure in the album’s closing stretch is “Watch Out for Me Ronnie,” which plays like a Buddy Holly cover. It feels incredibly out of place, even on a record with so much variation.
Nevertheless, I Am Not Afraid is a fascinating record that stands out as one of the best in Yo La Tengo’s lengthy career. It just takes a few listens to wade through it and come to that conclusion.