With the release last week of Join Us, their first album for grownups in four years, They Might Be Giants has managed something that few pop musicians ever pull off: still creating music of the type and caliber of what made them famous full decades after their start. The record has been heralded by their devoted cult and won its share of rave-ish mainstream assessments, and I agree that it's entirely worth your time.
But those outside the cult might be daunted by its 18 tracks or the band's reputation as a less-than-serious novelty act. Before deciding They Might Be Giants might not be your thing, it's a good idea to be sure you're clear on what exactly their thing is: restless, high-caliber pop music that's often a bit like good Elvis Costello minus the sexual anger.
So, for those who don't know already, here are nine samples of the best of the band's recent output. There's humor in these songs, but that doesn't make them jokes.
1. "Can't Keep Johnny Down" from Join Us
Kicking off with a quicksilver keyboard ringtone and then a brash full-band attack, and wrapping up with unfussy accordion chords and then that same keyboard jingle, the first track off the band's best album in a decade or so seems to solder the two approaches of their two distinct eras: the real rock-band stomp of John Henry through The Else and the more delicate squeezebox-and-electronics mode of their debut through Apollo 18.
Throughout both eras, the songwriting has often been strong, especially in cases like this, where John Linnell sings of unsettling anxieties over top-flight pop.
2. "Wearing a Raincoat" from The Spine
This psychedelic marvel of circular construction and hurt-your-brain cause-and-effect exemplifies Linnell's peculiar genius: curious, overlapping, corkscrewing melodies, often simple as a ditty yet entirely abstract. God only knows what this song is about, but it's somehow cozy and anxious at once, like a blanket made of tension.
3. "C Is for Conifers" from Here Come the ABC's
They Might Be Giants have spent much of the 2000s on music for kiddos. Most of this has been brisk, inventive pop that, superficially, might not seem far removed from their adult work. But the children's songs, good as they are, tend toward the one-dimensional, especially for a band that has for three decades paired sprightly music with brittle -- often bleak -- poetry.
That's even true for the educational songs, a fixture of both their adult and children's music. "James K. Polk" and "Meet James Ensor," from adult records, are stamped with dark truths: the politics of westward expansion in the former, the "torments of Christ" in the second. "C Is for Conifers," on the other hand, is kids' stuff, a celebration of evergreens as pure as mountain air. Like mountain air, it could be more substantial, but it is certainly fresh, clear, and stirring.
4. "Never Knew Love" from Join Us
A sleek, silvery love song that demonstrates an awareness of the bands of today that try to sound like the bands of the '80s, "Never Knew Love" is uncharacteristically direct for Linnell. "I never knew love could be like this," he sings. And then, over a gorgeous descending keyboard line, he adds, "I go around thinking I'm a genius," a piquant example of the way love can make you feel better than usual about the traits you consider your best. (There's a reason he doesn't sing, "I go around thinking I look hot in these pants" instead.)
Then, complicating things, John Flansburgh sings the bridge, starting with "Cartography is not my metier," which sounds like it's worth making sense of even though I haven't gotten around to it yet. The melody's simple, the music is a primitive retrofuturistic lark, and at the end Linnell cycles through some big-finish "Has there ever been love? Oh, I never knew love!" stuff that would have worked in '20s musical theater.