They Haven’t Yet Built the Man That’ll Keep Old Johnny Down

They Might Be Giants have been my official favorite band for some years now, dating back to when it was much easier for me to choose a favorite because I didn’t have albums by that many artists. This isn’t the case now, but they still stick with me. As of late, they’ve been concentrating quite a bit on children’s music, which is a little weird for adult fans like me. The thing is, I think they were kind of pegged as a kids’ band even before they actually WERE, so maybe they just figured they should make some money from this stigma. Their more standard songs often fall into the category of stuff that isn’t specifically intended for kids, but has a feel that appeals to them anyway. I guess this puts them in the same category as the Beatles and the Beach Boys, though, so that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, the problem I had with the actual kids’ albums isn’t so much that they were for kids. Hey, so were the Oz books, and I still love them. It’s more that, at least with their Disney work, they’re so busy being educational that it doesn’t really seem that they can truly let their imaginations fly. Their songs just shouldn’t be that understandable, damn it! {g} Well, for their new regular album, Join Us, they’ve said they’ve intentionally tried to return to their older sort of music, and it shows. The songs are short (the longest one is only 3:48), and full of bizarre references and turns of phrase. Since it’s pretty much become a tradition for me to do song-by-song reviews of TMBG albums, I might as well do that with this one as well.

Can’t Keep Johnny Down – This anthem of perseverance in the face of adversity kicks things off. It’s pretty catchy, and includes an accordion solo. I initially saw it as sort of a theme for the album, but the band has mentioned that the narrator is supposed to be a jerk, perceiving the world as against him for no real reason. I have to suspect the line “all the dicks in this dick town can’t keep Johnny down” is at least partially a reaction to the fact that they’ve been doing so much kids’ stuff recently. The Johns curse a lot at live performances, but rather rarely on their albums, so it’s usually pretty noticeable when they do. Or is it just that detectives are trying to keep Johnny down?

You Probably Get That a Lot – A love song to a cephalophore, which is actually a topic I covered at the beginning of this year. It’s quite possible that the song had been written by then, but I didn’t know about it. With the Johns’ obsession with disembodied heads, however, it was probably bound to come up in TMBG’s work at some time or other. The thing is, the cephalophore isn’t even that central to the song, which is mostly just about unrequited love. They could have used pretty much any noun there.

Old Pine Box – I think this could perhaps be seen as a companion song to “Drink!”, in that it’s about someone pointing out the crazy things a drunk guy does. Okay, it’s actually a burnout this time, according to John Flansburgh, but the principle is similar. The style is different, though, and the words a bit more metaphorical. This one pops up in my head every once in a while. It probably doesn’t need the distorted voice, but I won’t say that really hurts anything.

Canajoharie – The name comes from a town in New York named after a Mohawk settlement. It apparently means either “kettle on a pole” or “washed kettle.” The general consensus seems to be that the narrator is returning to a place he remembers from the past, which holds deep meaning for him. I know how that is. Not sure what the title has to do with anything, but Canajoharie is apparently not far from where the Johns have summer homes, and maybe John Linnell really did go there in his childhood. Or perhaps he just finds it fun to sing.

Cloisonné – I really like this one, even though I can’t make any real sense out of it. Okay, maybe that’s WHY I like it. It’s also hard to get out of my head. I can’t tell you how many times my mind has kept repeating, “You have a friend in law enforcement, don’t go calling law enforcement” since I first heard it. The part where Flans converses with a raindrop is kind of corny, but it works. Cloisonné is a means of decorating metalwork, but I don’t know what that has to do with anything else in the lyrics. Flans has said he’s never watched Land of the Lost, being too old, although my uncle-in-law is older and he watched it. For what it’s worth, I never watched the show, but I still got the reference right away.

Let Your Hair Hang Down – This one doesn’t really stick with me. It’s not bad, and the harmonies are interesting, but it’s forgettable.

Celebration – A pretty straightforward pop song with weird lyrics. I can’t find too much to say about it, aside from that the Hieronymous Bosch picture mentioned is almost certainly his most famous painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which does indeed show an “unlikely crowd.”

In Fact – It’s weird how TMBG can come up with so many songs that are just generally about feeling frustrated and out of one’s mind, but they never really get old. I quite liked “Climbing the Walls” on their last regular album, and this one explores much the same theme with a fun Latin sound complete with mariarchi-style horns. I also find the repetition of “I’m a mess” similar to that of “I’m insane” in “Absolutely Bill’s Mood,” although the songs aren’t much alike otherwise. This one is another stand-out for me.

When Will You Die – While an upbeat song about a disturbing topic is pretty typical of TMBG, I can’t help but feel this one is a little sillier than usual for them. Beth said that it reminded her of Weird Al, especially with the line, “You’re insane, you are bad, you wreck everything you touch and you’re a sociopath.” It’s sort of along the same lines as “I’m Your Boyfriend Now,” another one that I felt had a Weird Al vibe to its lyrics. Another interesting thing to note about this one is that it includes an introduction to the members of the band that seems thrown in, even though it fits musically, and even somewhat lyrically.

Protagonist – Flans sings both lead and backing vocals, with the former mostly telling a pretty straightforward tale of lost love and the latter giving stage directions, although they converge a bit toward the end. Beth told me this is her favorite so far, and I quite like it as well.

Judy Is Your Viet Nam – The shortest song on the album, clocking in at only 1:26, and it kind of seems unfinished. Not just because it’s short, because they have even shorter songs that don’t give that feeling, but because I think the theme could have been expanded a bit. It’s the most straight-up rock song on here, and the lyrics compare a relationship to the Vietnam War, in that it’s an obvious mistake but the subject of the song doesn’t realize it and stays in it for years. So there’s enough here to get the point, but I still say it could have used a little more.

Never Knew Love – Even though the Johns are quite clear that their songs are almost never autobiographical, I can’t help but notice that they tend to do more positive love songs since they’ve been married. I’m sure that’s not a coincidence. The chorus is quite simple, while the verses get more metaphorical.

The Lady and the Tiger – Based on the short story “The Lady or the Tiger?”, by Frank Stockton, but not exactly about it. In the story, criminals have a choice between two doors, with a hungry tiger behind one and a pretty woman behind the other. The song is actually about the two conversing while waiting for someone to make the choice, with both waxing philosophical. I couldn’t tell you where the lyrics about the laser beam eyes come from, although perhaps the intention is to make the lady seem more ferocious than the tiger.

Spoiler Alert – Probably the most innovative song on the album, with each John singing a different set of lyrics at the same time. I hear it as the internal monologue of a person driving while not paying attention, and eventually falling asleep at the wheel.

Dog Walker – This one is honestly kind of “meh” to me, being based more on noise and voice distortion than anything else. I have to wonder what I’d think of it if they’d left that stuff out.

2082 – A time travel story that, as far as I know, isn’t based on any actual science fiction work, but easily could be. The general idea appears to be that someone travels into the future and ends up killing his older self. The music has kind of a sci-fi sound but isn’t especially noteworthy, aside from the ding at the end that sounds to me like the end of a commercial jingle.

Three Might Be Duende – Duende are another subject I’ve written about in the recent past, and in this case I DID know about the song, although I hadn’t heard it. I know I got the title wrong in that post, but that’s how it was listed in an e-mail. The song is a march (as mentioned in the lyrics themselves) with guest vocals by actors David Driver and Michael Cerveris. I can’t say exactly what this song is about, but it does include some mythological themes. In Greek mythology, Hypnos (Sleep) is the brother of Thanatos (Death). Not sure which one was older (Homer said they were twins, although one was probably at least a few minutes older even if that’s the case), but “Sleep’s older brother” in the song is probably Death, which fits pretty well with “the keeper of dust, the builder of rust.” If we go with this a little further, Hypnos’ children were “shaper[s] of dreams,” of whom Morpheus was the most famous. Since I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, I can’t help think of how they’re also about “the shaper of dreams,” and TMBG was referenced in the comics. They also wrote a few songs for Neil before, although he didn’t use most of them. Still, I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily a connection there.

You Don’t Like Me – I’m not entirely sure why, but this song makes me think of Ben Folds. Not instrumentally, since there’s no piano, but it just kind of sounds like something he’d sing. The lyric “I can hear the friendly words of advice that I’d be offered if I had a friend to offer me advice” is classic TMBG, though. The listing of unrelated things the subject likes might relate to how people tend to do this on the Internet, although I personally did this long before I had Internet access. The abrupt ending makes me wonder why they chose this track to finish out the album.

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2 Responses to They Haven’t Yet Built the Man That’ll Keep Old Johnny Down

  1. Pingback: New and Troubling Questions | VoVatia

  2. Pingback: No Place in the Processional and No Seat in the Convention Hall | VoVatia

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