The great canon of indie-rock makeout classics is not an especially long list of songs. Indie rock, for much of its early lifespan, was mostly concerned with not making out, with being the music for the socially regressive bookish types who would reflexively look away whenever strangers made eye contact with them. And there’s really only a handful of songs that were there to reliably soundtrack the moments when those bookish types finally got their shit right and ended up alone in a room together. Low’s “Immune” was a great one. So was Cat Power’s “Cross Bones Style.” Luna’s cover of Beat Happening’s “Indian Summer” worked nicely. Belle And Sebastian always had a lot of good ones; for whatever reason, I was especially partial to “Don’t Leave The Light On Baby.” There were always indie-adjacent songs that might find their way into that canon if you weren’t being too strict about it: Air’s “All I Need,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” pretty much all of Sigur Ròs’ Ágætis Byrjun. And there have probably been plenty in the years since, say, 2004. (I met my wife during the era when people still sometimes made actual mixtapes for each other. For all I know, kids are hooking up to Mac DeMarco or whatever the fuck now.) But there is only one greatest indie-rock makeout song of all time, and that is Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater.”
“Autumn Sweater” is a miracle. Like plenty of indie rock songs, it’s about not making out, or at least about the anxiety that you won’t be making out with the same person for much longer. It’s a song about slowly losing connection, about being paralyzed by social tension and wishing it could just be the two of you instead of all these other fucking people at this party. But that nervous quality, and Ira Kaplan’s halting and uncertain delivery, are what make it perfect; they’re the reasons it mirrors that rare moment of connection so gloriously. And the way the song sprawls out is just luxurious in a way that the indie rock of the ’90s so rarely was. That organ-and-bongo groove somehow suggested both bossa nova and krautrock — two things that should really be fundamentally opposed to one another — at the same time, turning them into one undulating whole.
“Autumn Sweater” is a song that feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon, one where you and your new significant other don’t have to work, when you can just lie around your disgusting apartment together, watching bad TV and drinking cheap beer and never leaving each other’s presence. We music critics like to throw around the word “bliss,” but “Autumn Sweater” is the rare song that can evoke that actual feeling, that can take me back to some of the happiest moments of my life. When I made my first mixtape for the woman who would become my wife, way the hell back in 2003, you better fucking believe “Autumn Sweater” was on it.
The song evokes a particularly golden kind of nostalgia for many of us today, but when it came out, it sounded almost alien. Groove was a relatively new concept for Yo La Tengo. They’d been around for forever by the time they recorded I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, which turns 20 this weekend. It was their eighth album, and bands aren’t supposed to learn new tricks eight albums in. But with their previous two LPs, 1993’s Painful and 1995’s Electr-O-Pura, they’d made vast leaps forward. Their songs still sounded small and scrappy, but they had a grace and a confidence that was new and purposeful and exciting. By 1997, more than a decade in, they’d become critical favorites, and they probably could’ve coasted on that. Instead, they made a great leap into the unknown, a jump bigger than the ones they’d made on those previous two albums. “Autumn Sweater” is a bold move in one direction, but there are plenty more, in plenty more directions, on the album. It’s a truly omnivorous piece of work, an example of a band trying out a different sound on every song while still remaining very much themselves.
The members of Yo La Tengo, of course, knew each other very well, well enough to have some idea how far they could push themselves. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley were already married before they became a band in 1984. And though bassist and permanent third wheel James McNew was the new kid in the band, he’d already been a member for five years by that point. I Can Hear The Heart was the first time McNew got to sing lead vocals on a Yo La Tengo song, and that song — the dazed Neil Young pastiche “Stockholm Syndrome” — pretty much invented Woods 12 years before Woods crossed our collective radar. And there were so many other sounds. There was hazily precise dreampop on “Shadows.” There was twinkly ambient-instrumental film-score country music, replete with crickets chirping in the background, on “Green Arrow.” “Spec Bebop” is an 11-minute excursion into the sun, and it sounds like what might’ve happened if the Velvet Underground had stayed together long enough to be influenced by Can.
“My Little Corner Of The World,” an Anita Bryant cover, is textbook twee, while the album’s other cover, of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” is such a perfect fusion of noise and pop that the term “noise-pop” feels somehow insufficient. Just like “Autumn Sweater,” “Moby Octopad” showed a stunning new command of syncopation and polyrhythm, keeping the group’s dazed harmonies but using them for something that approached funkiness. If you were making mixtapes in the late ’90s and early ’00s, those songs were perfect fulcrum points, ideal ways to transition from, say, Helium to DJ Shadow. And then there was “Sugarcube,” an absolutely perfect nugget of revved-up, lovestruck guitar-rock. It seems almost unfair for the same album to have two songs like “Sugarcube” and “Autumn Sweater” — one song that perfectly encapsulated what indie rock was, another that perfectly encapsulated what it could do.
Twenty years later, looking back on the legacy of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is a tricky thing. It’s obviously a great album, probably Yo La Tengo’s best. But was it influential? No other bands sounded like Yo La Tengo. Even Yo La Tengo didn’t sound like themselves for long; their next album, the hushed 2000 reverie And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, was a step away from the gleeful experimentation of I Can Hear The Heart. But I’d like to think that an album like I Can Hear The Heart helped teach people how to listen to music. For people who were already stuck on indie rock, maybe I Can Hear The Heart showed that there was more out there. After all, if these comfortably established OGs could push their sound in all these different directions, nobody else had any excuse for sticking with the same ramshackle skree. And for someone like the 1997 version of me, who mostly listened to ska-punk and Wu-Tang and who thought of indie rock as dinner-party music for sad squares, it served as another kind of eye-opener. It helped show me that there was this whole universe that was out there for me as soon as I got a few things out of my system. After all, Reel Big Fish were never going to work as makeout music. I needed “Autumn Sweater.”