With the release of The Else, it is beginning to sink in for me that They Might Be Giants have been doing this for a long time. Considering their core fan base of nerdy boys, it would be easy for TMBG to stick with the pattern that initially made them famous and ride it from now ‘til the nerds die out (and I plan on sticking around for a bit). But I admire them because they have never been content to remain stuck in a particular pigeonhole—instead they would probably write a song about the pigeonhole that is alternately painstakingly literal and mindbogglingly absurd, and then move on.
Unfortunately, the Johns’ efforts to push themselves have not always yielded critical accolades, though they have usually yielded rabid fan support. Apollo 18 was widely panned at the time (“they stopped playing those funny electronic instruments”), but is a perennial fan favorite now, not least of all for the Residents-inspire “fingertip songs”—distillations of the pop song down to its bare essentials, or about 15 seconds. More recently, TMBG has explored children’s music (No!, Here Come the ABCs), have pushed the limits of what can be considered an album (the download only Long Tall Weekend), and challenged themselves to a venue-specific songwriting contest—against themselves (Venue Songs).
Which brings us about up to date (ignoring major discographical holes in my chronology). The Else finds John and John experimenting in two ways, apparently no longer content to go out on a limb just once per album anymore. First of all, they have brought in the Dust Brothers as producers. E.Z. Mike and King Gizmo are not the first names that spring to mind as potential TMBG producers, which is quite likely why the band hired them in the first place. Second, the band has undertaken a Soderberghian experiment in release dates. As of this writing, The Else has already technically been released via iTunes, where it reached #1 on the alternative charts within the first day. However, the physical disk—not entirely unlike the one I hold in my hands at this moment—is not scheduled for release until July 10th. I will have to wait patiently to see how this second experiment pans out. As for sticking DB behind the boards, I can check that out right now.
There is certainly something funkier about They Might Be Giants. The distorted drum machine on “I’m Impressed,” or the funky fuzz bass on “Take Out the Trash,” does sound more Odelay than Lincoln. Somehow, if only for a few moments at a time, They Might Be Giants could be mistaken for a “normal” band on The Else. Of course, they just might be making fun of “normal” bands. How else could a banal phrase like “Girl, come on take out the trash” become the rousing refrain of a good old-fashioned rave up? Because it is a sharper metaphor than most “normal” bands could come create.
The band hasn’t changed greatly since The Spine. The touch of the Dust Brothers is fairly evident, but TMBG is still rocking the sound of a full band, and they are probably still the smartest guys in popular music – though “popular” is always a stretch for They Might Be Giants. Where the band has made the most strides is in their lyrical subject matter. They are more literal (though not entirely, of course). On The Else, the a lot of TMBG’s material is found in popular music itself, taking the norm and skewing it, like on “The Cap’m,” which begins as a bluntly realistic love song. “Do you think there’s somebody out there / Somebody else who’s better than the one you’ve got? / Well, there’s not.” Then it veers into the realm of the absurd, ground frequently tread by the band.
What is most surprising about The Else is how close it comes to sincerity, often nearly touching the heartstrings before yanking away, as on “With the Dark.” “She’s in love with her broken heart / She’s in love with the dark,” they begin. Then, as though afraid of how close they have come to normal, punchy horns break up the pastoral ambiance of the opening stanza and “el otro Juan” breaks in “I’m getting tired of all my nautical dreams / I’m getting tired of all my nautical dreams.” Now the song is about a pirate. For this verse, anyway. Of course, there is fair time spent in familiar territory, like “Shadow Government” which is about exactly what it sounds like – or rather, is about “Where’s the shadow government when you need it?” This is They Might Be Giants, however, which means that there has been more thought put into their lyrics than I have the time to exposit at the moment (I trust most of you remember “Birdhouse in Your Soul”).
The Else is at least the most consistent album that They Might Be Giants have released yet. There is not a song that does not delight musically, lyrically, or holistically. The Johns’ witty wordplay also ensures good replay value, as the gamers say, and the Dust Brother’s production – in collaboration with Patrick Dillett – fleshes out the band’s sound like never before. I suppose The Elsemay just be a sign of They Might Be Giants maturing a bit. But, thankfully, only a bit.