They Might Be Giants
The Spine (Zoe Records)
By: Brad Halverson
"I think my special feature would be like a curvature to the spine, and you'd have a fake Advil that you would give to the action figure and its spine would straighten out a little bit or something. I don't know, I'm not articulating this very well. I'd have to think harder about this. Mine would be the one with back pain." -- John Linnell, when asked to describe what his action figure would be like from an interview with UGO.
Despite that They Might Be Giants have written some of the most joyful songs I've ever heard, they've also contributed a lot to the extensive catalogue of misery infused pop music that insists on staying bouncy and happy no matter how much it obsesses over death, lonelyness, etc. This serious undercurrent is something that has always caused me to want these guys to make something resembling a cohesive "album". Most of their past work, particularly their best album, "Apollo 18" proved that these guys could still focus on their art on a song by song basis and still come up with cohesive wholes, even if none of the songs were related in any way beyond that most of them were really good. Even their recent children's album, "No!" which is as much of a concept album as you could find is all over the place thematically.
Their new album, The Spine finds the band exploring familiar territory which upon first listen might lead one to think that they're out of ideas like the narrator of "Stalk of Wheat" which is the second song they've done about lacking inspiration, but honestly, it's a lot more unsettling to hear this song on their tenth album than it was when we heard the same message in "Number Three" on their first album. Maybe they mean it this time--
But here's the thing; just like it was easy to laugh at "Number Three" 22 years ago because it was obviously not true, "Stalk of Wheat" isn't troubling because the song, and pretty much every other one on the album smacks of the same originality that's so prevalent in the rest of the band's catalogue. These guys are so full of ideas that this little, 35 minute album would probably be regarded as a marking time album if it was made by anybody else. Sure they're doing what they've always done, but this album is soaked in a deeper sense of maturity and songcraft.
Unlike their last "adult" album "Mink Car" which was plenty enjoyable but felt more like a collection of several years' worth of songs rather than a proper album, The Spine feels more like a single whole entity than any of their past albums. While there's no real "concept" here, thoughthere is a loose structure (particularly among Linnell's songs) of pain (social and physical) and rising above limitations and challenges to meet your potential. If that sounds like, "Rudy" then so be it, but the subtletly shown here is poignant as hell. Songs that initially seem like jokes, particularly "Bastard Wants to Hit Me" is certainly funny, but it also touches on paranoia, social anxiety, and possibly how Linnell reacts to his fans. Meanwhile, the beautiful horn section assisted "Museum of Idiots" seems to discuss angst regarding being stuck somewhere stupid. Anybody who feels trapped in a dumb job can relate to this thing, and let me tell you, it sounded great when I put it on while pulling away from a long shift at Fred Meyer. While "Museum" may be the highlight of the album, it has some competition in "Thunderbird", which may be the happiest sounding song about tragic alcoholism I've ever heard.
Flansburghs' songs seem to take a different path, and the two different personalities within the group is probably what has kept the band interesting all these years. However Flans has always been less subtle than Linnell and that's particularly apparent on this album where Linnell is flexing his emotional muscles a bit more. Luckily that doesn't keep the extrovert John from exploring his own angst in "Memo To Human Resources" which turns out to be one of the best tracks on the album. The only time Flansburgh's songs fall a little flat is when they're solely limited to genre studies (the actually pretty awesome "It's Kickin' In") or they limit themselves to simple one-off jokes which causes stuff like the go nowhere "Prevenge" to seem a little forgettable even though it remains enjoyable. Elsewhere "Damn Good Times" might just be the happiest song I've ever heard and could be the catchiest song on the album.
And that's what really seperates TMBG from the rest. The willingness to have fun, even when playing with serious subjects, resonates because it so accurately reflects real life. If I may use a Radiohead analogy, real life isn't like "Kid A" with misery layered over more misery. It's like "The Bends" with misery mixed with happiness and anxiousness and even joy. The fact is that these guys can stick happy little songs like "Damn Good Times", "Au Contraire" and "Experimental Film" alongside songs that talk about how sleeping is a gateway drug to being awake, and other clever nuggets of negativity, and still make it sound like a something whole.
The fact that a band that's been around so long is still putting out career highlight songs like "Memo to Human Resources" , "Museum of Idiots" and "Thunderbird" is downright amazing, and the fact that they're able to string it all together into a teriffic album shows that they're still growing creatively even 22 years into their carreer. Good on ya Giants.