They Might Be Giants
After concentrating mostly on creating family music recently, They Might Be Giants have returned with just their second “adult” album in the last six years. While there is plenty of cartoon whimsy in everything that TMBG does, their “adult” music allows them to explore darker themes (both “Old Pine Box” and “When Will You Die” deal with death) and use more adult language (you wouldn’t find a line like “All the dicks in this dick town” in one of their children’s album). In fact, even educated adults might get lost in the Giant’s mighty vocabulary. Cephalophores? Canajoharie? Cloisonné? (sculptures in which a saint holding its head, a small New York town, and an ancient way of decorating metalwork, in case you are wondering).
However, you don’t have to fully understand all of TMBG’s lyrics to enjoy their wonderfully off-kilter arty pop. Art, in fact, is particularly present on this disc, with references to the film (“Protagonist”), literature (“Spoiler Alert”) and art worlds (“Three Might Be Duende”). “Duende” also best exemplifies TMBG’s love of wordplay. The title plays off of the band’s name and the tune includes malapropos-y phrases like “Necropolis Blownapart” and “Apocryphal Espadrille.” The catchy and kooky dance-floor ditty “Celebration” namedrops artists Banksy and Hieronymus Bosch.
The Giants’ twisted lyrics generally make for fun listening, but their words’ occasionally reach-for-the-dictionary obscurity can be distracting. Some of the disc’s most memorable tunes wind up as the ones that also are the most lyrically direct. “Judy Is Your Viet Nam” delivers a quick flashback, complete with big guitar riffs, to the New Wave ‘80s. “Never Knew Love” and “You Don’t Like Me” provides nice bookends of relationship/non-relationship songs. The former, with a Cars-like guitar line, offers TMBG’s version of heartfelt sentiment (“I go around thinking I’m a genius/But I never knew love could like this”), while the latter serves up an amusing list of examples why a relationship isn’t meant to be (“You like cigarettes, swimming laps, potato chips, Battleship, cats, and Court TV”).
Besides the band’s signature quirky lyrics, Join Us also retains its well-known staccato guitar and keyboard interplay as well as a tendency for crazy-quilt arrangements. “In Fact,” for example, incorporates a jazzy trumpet, a rubberband beat and Mexican horns, while “Dog Walker” contrasts a heavy musical sound with cartoon-like processed vocals. Similarly, the barbed sentiment of “When Will You Die” is undercut by the highly caffeinated horn-fueled arrangement that recalls a TV crime story soundtrack.
While Join Us might not reach the exhilarating absurdist pop height of “Ana Ng” or “Don’t Let’s Start,” it comes fully stocked with a fresh supply of TMBG’s delightfully hooky weirdness.