Upon first listen, Popular Songs seems to pick up where Yo La Tengo left off three years ago: making another strong album in the vein of their essential I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Styles will shift from song to song--dream-pop ballads, 60s soul/pop pastiches, organ driven garage rock, lengthy noise jam workouts--and yet the quality of the songs will remain high, while the whole album holds together as one great work. But the more I listened to Popular Songs, I began to wonder why it wasn't quite capturing my heart. Subsequent listens brought diminishing returns. What was wrong here??
Going track by track, Popular Songs is as interesting an album as Yo La Tengo has ever made. But due to both the songs themselves and the order they were placed, the album feels uneven and poorly paced. This is most noticeable in the album's final third: the last three tracks of this 12 song work account for half of Popular Songs's run time, and they aren't exactly the most dynamic of the bunch. Other albums had long songs, true, but they weren't all lumped together and there seemed to be more development even if maybe there wasn't. 'More Stars Than There Are In Heaven' is stunning shoegazer pop, but to the casual ear, it's just the same thing over and over for more than nine minutes. 'The Fireside' reminds me of something from Animal Collective's Campfire Songs, with its slow building acoustic guitar backbone. This song is a pretty effective mood piece, but even when I've been in a patient enough mood to listen to it all the way through, there simply isn't enough going on at any one time for the song to achieve whatever goal it was trying for. Lastly there's 'And The Glitter Is Gone', which is in the line of other longform Yo La Tengo noise/rock workouts. I like this song, yet it does have the past to contend with. If you've listened to a few of their other albums, the song takes on a "going through the motions" feel. For my money, the beginning and closing tracks of I'm Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your *** do this style much better and with less time.
Still, it's good to see the band trying out new things, and the first half of the album shows Yo La Tengo putting their best pop foot forward. In fact, this is probably the most accessible chunk of music they've ever done. Some of the songs in this part of the album recall the placid, spacious beauty of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, while the others return to the stylistic costumes of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Bassist James McNew even contributes one of the album's best songs with the laidback 'I'm On My Way.' Which brings me to my next point: there's a real lack of surprising or outstanding material on the album. McNew's 'Stockholm Syndrome' was but a small part of the greatness of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, while I find myself struggling to recall most of Popular Songs even after my nth listen. They aren't bad songs, and maybe it's not fair to compare them to other Yo La Tengo albums, but music doesn't exist in a vacuum. To be brutally honest, there isn't a single track here that I would put on a theoretical greatest hits collection.
The word that keeps coming to mind when I listen to this album is "comfortable." This isn't a good or bad thing, but there's a distinct lack of surprise or cohesiveness to Popular Songs that detracts from my enjoyment of it. It is a solid Yo La Tengo release, one that established fans are sure to enjoy... but those of us who want something new/different can't help but feel the album is a bit underwhelming, on top of its unevenness and poor pacing. Moreover, I can't imagine anyone who's new to Yo La Tengo really getting into this album, largely because Popular Songs is so alienating in its aforementioned pacing. It bears repeating: three of the album's 12 songs take up about half of its runtime, and they're all smashed together at the end where they don't flow at all.
Ultimately, I'm not sure even a re-arranged tracklisting would improve the album. This batch of songs continually strikes me as good, but not great; as interesting, but not essential. Sadly, the same could be said for the album itself.