Modern Classics: They Might Be Giants (1986), They Might Be Giants

“No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful/ everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful” (from “Don’t Let’s Start”)

1986 was an odd year in music. The pop charts were dominated by Whitney Houston and Madonna (the mellifluous fluff continued with albums by Wham! And Lionel Ritchie); Rock screamers like Great White, Metallica and Bon Jovi released successful albums; old reliables like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the Talking Heads kept keeping on. Hip-hop was starting to make noise even on the mainstream charts (Run DMC and the Beastie Boys released albums). Soon-to-be central names of alt-rock were releasing some of their best work (Camper Van Beethoven, Sonic Youth) while the New Wave wavered on (the Smiths, and the Cure).

We begged our parents for long-distance calling permission....

Then, in November, a duo from Massachusetts living in Brooklyn and acting as the house band of a performance art space released an album made up of songs largely recorded on a 4 track in their apartment. The album scored new fans on college radio stations and introduced the world to the unique and unmistakable sound of They Might Be Giants—a collection of rock songs and strange experiments built of a guitar, a synthesizer, some, accordion, and two slightly nasal, but melodic voices.

Almost anyone who has heard TMBG can recognize their early sound—most songs (with the exception of short, strange pieces) are structured as conventional rock songs with instrumentation created from invention and necessity (all drum and bass tracks are programmed; the duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell tend to favor, especially on their early work, odd sounds and occasional samples).

While the music can seem off, it is the lyrics that people usually remember. TMBG have made the claim that their lyrics are fit to the music and don’t have deeper meanings. This can seem to be the case on some of the songs on their debut album. The overt simplicity of songs like “Rabid Child” (“Rabid child stays at home, talks on a CB / Truckers pass calling out their handles to the kid”) or “Toddler Hiway”( “In the mornin’ sun ’round seven o’clock / the parking lot fills around Toys-R-Us / And my little girl, she will get away / Ride her bike down Toddler Hiway”) may be called into question if you ponder too long on the possible meanings of the lyrics of “Puppet Head” (“Quit my job down at the carwash / Didn’t have to write no-one a good-bye note / That said, “The check’s in the mail, and / I’ll see you in church, and don’t you ever change“). This last song, if contemplated for its dissatisfaction with working life, could almost be seen as a representation of the dysfunctional relationship between the self and the external world—a song of protest and surrender. (And I, of course, don’t worry about what artists claim for the meaning of their work; once they let it go, it is ours.)

What marks the collection of songs out most remarkably, however, is generic experimentation. “(She was a) Hotel Detective” and “Youth Culture Killed My Dog” are interesting rock jaunts whereas songs like “Toddler Hiway”, and “Hideaway Folk Family” feature the duo’s singing and arrangement abilities (considerable on both counts; the harmonies throughout the album are memorable). Other tracks, like “I hope that I get old before I die” and “Alienation” flirt with the country/folk side of popular music while songs like “Boat of Car” feature early (and interesting) versions of sampling.

The strength of the album resides in its best rock songs. “Don’t Let Start” is a wonderfully arranged, sung, and instrumented piece (and one of their best straight-rock songs); “Rhythm Section Want-Ad” is eminently repeatable and, for those interested, self-referential and aware. The core of the TMBG sound, I believe, can be found in the contrasts of the 11th track, “She’s an Angel,” which starts with a spare single bass beat backed by a kick-drum and continues with quintessentially obscure TMBG lyrics (“I met someone at a dog show / she was holding my left arm / but everyone was acting normal so I tried to look nonchalant”) and, as the song bursts into a bridge into the chorus, the full sound breaks open to a song that seems to question the basic caprice of life and love (“Why did they send her over anyone else? / How should I react? / These things happen to other people / they don’t happen at all, in fact”) over a sliding guitar, hand claps, and a wavering synthesizer. Along with the entertaining track “Alienation”, the mortality paean “I hope that I Get Old before I die”, and the uncertain anthem “Nothing’s Going to Change my Clothes”, these tracks form the musical and lyrical center of the album and, in many ways, anticipate the major themes and motifs of the later albums.

Anyone who has read my earlier post about TMBG would probably expect a glowing and worshipful review of their first album. And, in all honesty, I sat down intending to defend it, intending to argue to the best of my abilities that it was truly the best album of 1986 and TMBG’s best album. After listening to it again, however, I know why I don’t listen to the whole album over and over. The tracks can be too dissimilar (nearly to the point of dissonance) and some of them, while interesting, just don’t seem to contribute to a coherent whole (which, I know, was probably not the goal).

For example, while the album starts with somewhat interesting lyrics and the  hook “Everything right is wrong again” which resolves into the cleverly simplistic “and now the song is over now” (with a synthesized harpsichord) the cleverness can verge on the juvenile—“Number Three”, which advertises the writing of a third song despite tragic limitations, is musically engaging and amusing in adolescence, but now I struggle to come up with ways to like it. Songs like “32 Footsteps” and “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” can be annoying; “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”, “Absolutely Bill’s Mood”, and “Chess Piece Face” don’t really contribute to the album and could have been left out (or relegated to samples as in their track “Fingertips” on Apollo 18).

I remember loving every second of this album. Now that I do not I wonder if this is a measure more of what I have lost or gained. By their later albums, the sense of experimentation, although still present, is not as strong and the newness and rawness of the recordings are on the wane. This debut album, then, is perfect in that it introduces the promise of the band but does not, as with many debuts, limit the future to a formula. As an album, it is mostly good, but upon revisiting it later, I can understand why it did not gain more popular appeal. Musically intriguing, yes; quirky, yes and yes; repeatable, not completely.

In keeping with the Desert island theme—this album is under consideration, but probably not worthy. If I had to pick one TMBG album to keep, and I couldn’t take a reissue of the best songs, Flood, Apollo 18 and John Henry might come first. Maybe. But the debut, for being the debut, and for being so iconoclastic, must be considered a classic. It is not perfect and that is beautiful.
And you, brother? Have I gotten this album right?

15 comments on “Modern Classics: They Might Be Giants (1986), They Might Be Giants

  1. londongigger says:

    We only had one hit of theirs over here and that was “Birdhouse in your soul” in 1990 which I love incidentally. Sweet eccentric quirky lyrics. Wish they had had more exposure in the UK.

    • theelderj says:

      TMBG didn’t have too much mainstream exposure here of the normal kind (primetime MTV rotation; radioplay; charts position); but they seemed to occupy a weird place on the periphery. “Particle Man” was featured on an animated show in the early 1990’s; the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle” got them greater notice. They were also always a part of the ‘college radio’ scene, touring like maniacs and appearing almost laughably often on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”.

      In the typical pop framework, they never ‘made it’ as a band; yet, they certainly have had a good career.

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