They Might Be Giants, Glean – I’ve been a fan of TMBG for about eighteen years now, and I still consider them my favorite band. It’s only been two years since the band’s last album, which I hope is good news for the future. Back in their early days, they would put out an album every two years, but that was before I became a fan and their production slowed somewhat after that. Well, okay, that’s not entirely fair, since they put out several children’s albums in the intervening years. They’re still quite prolific, especially for a band that’s been around for so long. I’ve noticed several artists among my favorites who seem to just write songs constantly. While most of TMBG’s albums have some fairly bleak lyrics, I noticed a theme on this one of feeling trapped by music. The fact that I heard a lot of these songs on Dial-A-Song before the album release makes a little difficult to view the whole thing as a single entity, but since I generally review TMBG albums song-by-song anyway, I guess that’s not such a big deal. While I wouldn’t say that the album as a whole feels particularly original for the band, they do experiment with some interesting new styles and sounds.
Erase – I kind of feel that there should have been a warm-up first. I think this is comparable to some of John Linnell’s songs on Nanobots in that there aren’t really any musical changes; it just keeps going in the same way. Interesting that it mentions deep-sea divers and mermaids; those things must have been on Linnell’s mind at the time. Of course, many classic mermaid tales involve the diver dying when they see mermaids, which fits with the dark lyrics to the song. I wonder if there’s any relation between the button marked “Erase” and the fast-forward button from “The Cap’m.”
Good to Be Alive – There was a discussion recently on Facebook about whether TMBG’s songs sound like nursery rhymes, and lyrically this one definitely does. It’s a more laid-back song with John Flansburgh singing to his body parts. For the most part there doesn’t appear to be any particular irony to the lyrics, with the possible exception of the mention of his leg being “shaky” and “barely more than decoration.”
Underwater Woman – I’m getting tired of all these nautical themes! No, seriously, this one also utilizes mermaid legends to paint a picture of a woman who sounds rather depressed and lonely. One complaint I have about it is the line, “brushing her hair, eating a pear.” Could you really not think of a better rhyme, John?
Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2 – This one really struck me when I first heard it. Musically, it’s really cool, with kind of a gypsy sound to it and a short clarinet-heavy solo. It’s a lot more cheerful than you’d think from the title. Actually, I remember reading something, I think by David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, about how how songs often don’t reveal the true meaning until the end, and that probably applies here. Part 1 makes Music Jail sound awesome, despite its name. Then, in Part 2, Flansburgh sings in falsetto about how he feels stranded and alone. The phrase “music jail” is pretty evocative, and could mean a few different things. Does the narrator feel trapped by music, or stuck in a musical rut? It is interesting how this is the first song on the album to have a rather complex arrangement, with the first three being quite straightforward.
Answer – Probably the catchiest song on here, as evidenced by the fact that I find it difficult to get out of my head. It seems to be about realizing that you might not get what you want in life, but what you do get isn’t necessarily all that bad. It’s somewhat ambiguous as to whether the line about the narrator being “the answer to all your prayers” is meant in a comforting or a creepy way, but I prefer the former.
I Can Help the Next in Line – The music to this one is kind of funky, a lot like Mono Puff. It’s fairly slight lyrically, basically just being a mixture of common phrases. TMBG does that kind of thing a lot, but usually there’s a little more of a twist.
Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel – Another kind of goofy one, insulting a woman in an old-fashioned manner. It doesn’t progress much beyond its basic idea, but it has a nice tune and is pretty funny in its way.
End of the Rope – Fairly typical TMBG, and Linnell especially, in that it plays on a metaphor for having gone crazy. That’s a good thing, by the way. And while the theme is typical, I don’t recall having heard anything else by the band all that musically similar. The keyboard has kind of an old-school R&B sound to it (“you’ll play that ‘clink-clink-clink’ jazz or you won’t get paid tonight!”), but the vocals don’t really match that. I wonder if this is the closest we’ll ever get to Linnell singing the blues.
All the Lazy Boyfriends – There’s a bit of a Magnetic Fields vibe to this one, at least as far as the music goes. It’s basically about crappy boyfriends who keep saying they’re willing to change but never really do anything. I like it, but I can’t think of anything much to say about it. As far as songs about women putting up with terrible men go, it’s a huge improvement over “Take Out the Trash.”
Unpronounceable – While it can be difficult to know exactly what many TMBG songs are about, it sounds like the narrator met someone he found attractive and didn’t know how to react, and is now obsessing over it. I don’t know whether the person’s name is LITERALLY unpronounceable or the narrator was just so caught up in his own thoughts that he didn’t catch it. The sound is quite appropriate for the subject matter, with a lot of echo and the broken-down vocals at the end.
Hate the Villainelle – A villainelle is a poetic form that apparently just started as a typical ballad, but later came to have a specific structure. It’s nineteen lines long, with five tercets and a quatrain, and a particular rhyme and repetition scheme. I’m no expert on poetry, but based on the description, I think this song actually is a villainelle, so the whole thing is pretty meta-referential. While Linnell sings it, Flans wrote it, and he once again mentions music trapping him in prison.
I’m a Coward – Flans returns to lounge-style singing with this, but the music includes electric guitar with a fair amount of static. It’s pretty simple lyrically, expressing a longing for a friend to help the narrator overcome his cowardice. If he only had da noive!
Aaa – A rock number about morbid curiosity, with the singer wanting to get into things that really shouldn’t be disturbed. One of the sillier lines regards his having heard that there’s alien blood inside golf balls.
Let Me Tell You About My Operation – A fun, jazzy song about an operation to remove the narrator’s memory. Kind of similar thematically to “Erase,” I guess. The repeated “tres bon” definitely puts me in mind of “Au Contraire,” which both used that phrase and ended with another jazz-style repetition.
Glean – And the whole thing ends with a laid-back instrumental, which sounds like something that would play while time passes in a movie or something. I kind of think this should have been at the beginning, as it would mean more of a build-up for “Erase,” but that’s a minor complaint. Do that many people even listen to albums in order anymore?