They Might Be Giants
They Might Be Giants have never released a poor album, and it’s unlikely that they will ever do so. Songsmiths John Linnell and John Flansburgh are too talented, too pop savvy, too charismatic to cut a record that does not have at least one or two excellent tracks and several more that are miles ahead of whatever stylistic fad is gripping music at the time. They instinctively know how to write an enduring, catchy hook, a zinger of a chorus and their lyrics have wit and wordplay to spare.
But still, The Spine, the two Johns’ first “grown-up” (a word to be used very loosely where TMBG is concerned) album in three years and their tenth overall, is arguably their weakest to date. The most forgiving view of it would be as a long follow-up EP to 2001’s Mink Car. Although it boasts 16 tracks, the running time is only 36 minutes; of these, maybe ten would qualify as contenders for the classification of “song” instead of vaguely amusing padding, and even fewer measure up to TMBG’s usual impeccable and supremely memorable standards. Some, like “Prevenge” and “Some Crazy Bastard Wants to Hit Me,” rely much too heavily on the digital sleights of hand and distortion effects the band toyed with on Mink Car for their appeal. Strip these songs of this lifeless noodling and you’re left with something skeletal and dull. Many others — “Thunderbird,” the two brief “Spine” interludes, “Broke in Two,” “Au Contraire” — sound too similar to songs already existing both inside and outside the TMBG catalogue to merit any special attention.
There are the one or two excellent tracks we ought to expect, the first being the album opener “Experimental Film.” Here Linnell satirizes the pretentious film school students and self-styled artists who pontificate about “the color of infinity in an empty glass” and other heady, utterly useless issues while promising all their friends starring roles in their next project, even though it has yet to move past the stage of sheer fancy. Of course, they already know how it ends: “It’s the part where your face implodes.” And then there’s “Wearing a Raincoat,” on which Linnell takes the last line of the previous verse as the first line of the new verse to paint a surrealist picture of flying around in a plane made of a yellow raincoat, food coming from pipes and sleep as the “gateway drug” to being awake. But even these high points aren’t as high as those on previous albums, nor are they anything more intricate than straightforward rock. The fruity, celebratory horns of John Henry barely get a showing, the generic diversity of Flood and Apollo 18 are nowhere to be found, the adventurousness and quirkiness of the band’s eponymous debut is missing and even the sophisticated studio antics of Factory Showroom are a distant memory.
Does this mean that TMBG are showing signs of weariness or age? Probably not. The enthusiasm on The Spine is as high as ever. The trouble, I think, stems from having fingers in too many pies: children’s books, Dial-a-Song, streaming Internet radio, interactive CDs, film documentaries, animation soundtracks, solo side projects, literary involvements with Dave Eggers and the New York literary “[sh]it” crowd. Branching out is one thing, but could even Da Vinci handle all this? Before Mink Car, the Johns’ inspiration was channeled into one or two solo efforts and a prominent Web presence; now the core group itself is something of an afterthought. Hey, John! How many years has it been since we released a proper album under our own name? Three? Damn. We’d better get something out quick.
If we are to ever get another They Might Be Giants album to equal or surpass the likes of Flood, Lincoln or John Henry, the two Johns are going to have to refocus their energy and reinvest the bulk of their time in the group itself — not the children’s wing, not the literature division, not the online arm. Otherwise we’re going to get a series of albums not unlike The Spine: very good, in other words, but lacking the TMBG hallmarks of polish, originality and creativity. Even Da Vinci, that master of all trades, left most of his most promising work half-finished.