Sometimes a song just elects itself for inclusion. Mind you, I’ve pretty much got these dwindling days of 2014 mapped out so I know which songs go when, with a few wild cards and open spots still available.
What? You say you don’t think 2014 is dwindling quite that quickly? Au contraire. Next weekend the clocks fall back. And then we're down to the last two months. And you know what the song says: “the days grow short when we reach September.” Well, September done been and gone. And now October too, almost.
So, with autumn raging along—me just back from a car trip that showed off plenty of fire in the leaves and heavy clouds in the skies—why not grab hold of a song that’s fulla fall? Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, my second favorite album of theirs (I know, I know, I ain’t heard them all) after Painful (1993).
This song became one of “those songs” in the fall of 1999 when I was all on my ownsome for the first time in forever. Ever. And I heard it then as one of those great songs for evoking the surge and blur of the fall semester partying and dating scene au l’université. Of course, I wasn’t in anything like that in 1999, but my daughter was in her first ever college semester so I suppose there was some of that vicarious awareness as I visited her campus and taught on my campus and, y’know, sorta observed the kids in their habitats.
The song starts with what sounds like a tremulous guy worrying about the date ahead: “When I heard the knock on the door / I couldn’t catch my breath / Is it too late to call this off?” Now, maybe it’s a bad idea because he’s just not that into it, or maybe it’s because it already means too much. But maybe “this” isn’t a date but rather some kind of big get-together and he’s already thinking it would be better to include themselves out: “We could slip away / Wouldn’t that be better?” Then the lines that kept going through my head for some reason today: “Me with nothing to say / And you in your autumn sweater.”
And there you have it. I feel warmed by this. It’s like riding along, saying nothing, looking at the leaves. “Wouldn’t that be better?” Better than . . . other stuff.
So yeah, it seems the stuff is some big to-do, with our hero trying to hide in a crowded room while he waits “for you, oh, most patiently.” He’s pining for a way out of this. How you hope, during awkward events, that someone will show up who will put an end to all that dull babble, grin affixed.
The tune is there but it’s also very understated. The intoning organ sound is what dominates as if there’s this steady mood of anticipation. The drum track supports some actual drumming, an intricate pattern, and the bass part, on keyboard, comes in about midway through with melodic lines of its own. The whole thing sounds processed enough to be “cool” with y’all Eighties cats, while percolating with that alt vibe we luved in the Nineties. Speaking of college campuses, I saw, with Kajsa, YLT play in a courtyard of Pierson college at Yale in late Nineties, probably when this album was newish, and they did this song and it was great.
The part about the waves pouring from your eyes sets up the somewhat despondent part that also was real enough to me: “It’s a waste of time if I can’t smile easily / Like in the beginning.” There’s more of that “before” and “now” thing going on there. Like, if it’s not fun, not bringing on a smile, well then it’s not worth it no more. Remember when it was easy?
The recurring “me with nothing to say / and you in your autumn sweater”—through repetition—starts to become suspect. Like: picture us. Me not smiling easily, not even at you in your autumn sweater, and saying nada. And what’s with that sweater, anyway? It could be a way of saying that she’s still maintaining a certain image—which I associate with college—though those days (“in the beginning”) aren’t here now.
Another song I could’ve slotted in around now for having an autumnal vibe like this one is Big Star’s “Kangaroo.” I hope I’ll get around to it but not sure I will. It’s perhaps the quintessential “I saw you at the party” song. “We looked very fine as we were leaving” was recalled to me by YLT’s “we could slip away.”
The textures, let’s say, in this song remind me of the Velvet Underground, though Ira Kaplan’s quivery vocal has nothing of Lou’s deadpan. The vocal is very, very understated, almost muttered at times.
It’s nearly possible