February 29 — “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo (1997, from the album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One).

Yo La Tengo is an indie-rock band from Hoboken, New Jersey. Since 1986, they’ve released 12 proper albums and a bundle of EPs and singles. In 2002, they also wrote original music to be used as score for some of the underwater documentary films of Jean Painlevé. One of the things they’re known for is doing a lot of cover songs. They’ve recorded nearly 100 cover songs, and have even released two albums of cover songs.

The core of the group for the last 20 years has been the husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan (guitars, keys, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, keys, vocals), plus James McNew (bass, vocals).

For extra credit, you can see James McNew in the brilliant documentary The Parking Lot Movie. It isn’t about Yo La Tengo or rock music. It’s about a parking lot at the University of Virginia where McNew worked as an attendant many years ago. I’ve seen this movie a few times, and I’ll recommend it without reservation. It’s available for instant viewing on Netflix. The fact that McNew is in it has nothing to do with the fact that it’s great, and the only reference to Yo La Tengo is at the end, during the “where are they now” bits. It’s just a bit of trivia, really.

I’m not familiar with the entire catalog of Yo La Tengo. In fact, my knowledge of them starts with 1993’s Painful and ends with 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. If I’m missing out on some of the earlier stuff, please let me know. I just have never given those records a listen.

I Can Hear the Heart… was met with glowing reviews. It was placed on nearly every 1997 year-end list, and on a good number of “best records of the 1990s” lists. However, even among those glowing reviews, there’s some sentiment that the second half of the album — everything after the cover of The Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” — is throwaway stuff. I’m not sure that I agree with that, but the first nine songs are indeed stronger than the rest.

Everyone says that “Autumn Sweater” is not only the best song on the record, but the best song of their entire catalog. I would argue that “From a Motel 6” and the loud version of “Big Day Coming”, both from Painful should be included in that conversation.

While there are some great songs on I Can Hear the Heart…, I’ll have to go with the popular sentiment about “Autumn Sweater”. Here it is:

“Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo

They released a single of this song that included the album version backed with three remixes. Those remixes were done by Tortoise, μ-ziq, and Kevin Shields. Those are all pretty sweet, and pretty creative remixes, but right now, this is about the album version.

While some say that this is about the beginnings of a romance — maybe a first date, I like to think otherwise. I like to think that is about two people who have already known each other intimately. It could be about some weird role playing thing done by a couple who have lost some of the fire (see: Blind Date, with Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci). It could be about ex-lovers arranging a rendezvous. Also, my theory of the day is that it’s about a couple who’s about to break up but there’s some second thoughts.

When I heard the knock on the door
I couldn’t catch my breath.
Is it too late to call this off?

We could slip away
Wouldn’t that be better?
Me with nothing to say
and you in your autumn sweater

He’s got nothing to say because he never has anything to say. Or he’s got nothing to say because he’s got cold feet about breaking up with her. And that’s why he couldn’t catch his breath. That’s why he wants to call this (the “we’re breaking up” talk) off. It’s the autumn sweater that did it.

Later in the song:

I’ll try hard, I’ll try always
But it’s a waste of time
It’s a waste of time if I can’t smile easily
Like in the beginning

He knows that working their way back to being a happy couple isn’t going to be easy. He used to smile, but now he forces smiles or doesn’t smile at all. He’s going to try. The autumn sweater helps.

That’s just my theory du jour. Next week, I might think it’s about something else entirely.

I really love the simple drumming in the intro. I like the drumming throughout, but it’s a nice way to introduce the song. Bass drum and high-hat. Simple. Elegant. There’s barely any bass guitar. In fact, when they play this song live, James plays a second drum kit. I don’t think there’s an electric guitar in the song at all. Drums and keys.

There’s a bit from 1:15 to 1:34 where the bass and the bongos are highlighted. I was thinking that it sounded just like u2’s “Mysterious Ways”, but I just listened to that a couple of times, and that’s not it. I must be thinking of some other u2 song that has a section just like that.

I Can Hear the Heart… was issued as a CD and as a double-LP. The vinyl went out of print, but it has been re-ordered. Now you can get it in any format you want from the Matador Records shop here.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

2 responses to “February 29 — “Autumn Sweater” by Yo La Tengo

  • Chris Infanti

    One of my favorite songs ever, by any artist.

  • Kyle Durlam

    Their latest album, Popular Songs, from 2009, was pretty damn good, too. I know a guy who has a copy of it. I’m a pretty big fan of “Spec Bebop” from the same album as “Autumn Sweater,” but in the maligned latter half of the album. Will have to give that album a good run-through again, to see if I agree with the pundits about the first half being better than the second.

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