Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in The Dispossessed that you can go home again—because home is a place you have never been. I hone in on the significance on home here because, in a manner of speaking, They Might Be Giants have come home with their latest album, I Like Fun, recorded in the same space they recorded Flood.
Not entirely the same though. Back in the day it was Skyline Studios. Now it’s Reservoir Studios, following a renovation in 2015-16. Stuff has changed in the interval; likewise with TMBG in-between Flood and I Like Fun.
Don’t get me wrong, TMBG is still two Johns, still writing catchy songs and (presumably) keeping rock accordion alive. And it’d be hard to mistake I Like Fun for anything but a TMBG album. But you could.
One distinguishing feature of TMBG’s oeuvre, generally speaking, is how miniature the music can feel. Put another way, when the Johns are working their magic, the songs aren’t just heard but irrupt into your headspace and leave a TMBG-shaped hole in your skull.
Therefore, it is with not undue sadness that I report that on I Like Fun, the band has pulled up in a standard sedan (not in Shriner-loaned cars) and are coming through the front door—with disarmingly apocalyptic urgency.
The Thanatos has never been more strongly evidenced in TMBG’s oeuvre than on I Like Fun. To be fair, the band has written songs about death before (“I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die,” off The Pink Album and “Dead” off Flood, come to mind) but never with an immediacy untempered by sardonicism or surrealism. There’s nothing off-kilter about opener “Let’s Get This Over With,” steadied with regular drums and handclaps, which lays out the album’s overarching message: “Everybody knows how this goes / so let’s get over it / and let’s get this over with.” This sensibility is only reinforced on closer “Last Wave,” where the Johns sing out about how “We die alone / we die afraid / we live in terror / we’re naked and alone / and the grave is the loneliest place.”
It’s a long way away from thinking about the dirt they’ll be wearing for a shirt or wondering how big the procession was.
Somewhat disappointing too is the fact that the arrangements lack that irruptive quality I discussed earlier, the one that punches through your defenses (otherwise called taste). Songs like “An Insult to the Fact Checkers” and “I Left My Body” have all the hallmarks of power pop—giddy tempo, hard-thumbed guitar lines, notes smacking like ball bearings, brief solos unfurling like a silk ribbon in the wind—without the usual payoffs. Even instances where the band steps away from power pop and seem to hearken back to Flood-era arrangements (like on the title track and “McCafferty’s Bib”) they feel hollowed of significance.
Despite the title, there’s little fun on I Like Fun. Some commenters have highlighted the seeming political commentary running through the album—most notably on what should be the “funnest” song on I Like Fun, “Lake Monsters.” The premise? Lake monsters mob the polls and the world seems utterly altered as a result. How dull.
But here’s the thing, reader: I have a lot of misgivings about this, but I’m still going to give this album a good score. You may ask why. The answer is I don’t have a good one. Maybe this feeling will pass. It probably will. More likely than not, in the words of album highlight, “By the Time You Get This.”
Overlooking the lack of arranging panache and the nominal protest registered here and there on I Like Fun, this album still does things for me that I’m not sure any other album—or any other band—are doing right now. True, the whole “dying alone and afraid” and “getting it over with” are what dominate tone-wise, but there are other messages to be gleaned, other threads to follow.
I mentioned apocalyptic urgency earlier in this review. For the most part, I was thinking about my favorite song on I Like Fun when I wrote that, “Push Back the Hands.” Disconcertingly simple in premise, the song is about that godawful disaster moment where things just end—apocalyptically. “Dawn breaks like a fallen vase” and so on. What you wouldn’t give to dial the clock back and maybe do something about it. But can you? My other album favorite, “Mrs. Bluebeard.” has an answer in the form of the missus’ hung-up corpse: “Is this what’s supposed to happen / When you’re only trying to do right in this wicked world?”
Protest? Hell, it’s a jeremiad of the nether regions TMBG is offering here, alongside with the usual charms and coy gimmicks. If you’re not convinced, I leave you with this excellent admonition from “I Left My Body,” where death is compared to getting your car towed: “You gotta act like you’re not abandoned.”
Fans of They Might Be Giants probably laugh as they pass members of other musical allegiances on the street.
“Oh, what’s that? Neutral Milk Hotel still haven’t gotten back together? My Bloody Valentine thought about doing something and then just reissued Loveless again? Oh that’s too bad, you poor dear.” A chuckle is hid, a smirk repressed.
See, They Might Be Giants aren’t operating like bands usually do 30 years into their career. They’re just doing the same thing they were doing in ‘88, releasing a fairly solid and appreciable album every couple years and then touring behind it. Sometimes it’s a children’s album, sure, but I’m not going to tattle if you count it in the tally anyways. Lord knows I’ve jammed out to “Seven Days of the Week” one or thirty times.
This opening series of paragraphs should be setting off an alarm bell in your thin, braised skull. “Wait a tick, this guy really likes They Might Be Giants! Why, I suppose he’s going to gush about them as a band while generally smoothing over any problems with the new album, culminating in a score inflated several points above what it should be!” Buckle up for fun!
They Might Be Giants are such a good band. The two Johns, Linnell and Flansburgh, mastered the art of creating clever, knotty pop songs decades ago and now they peddle that shit without rest or remorse. Commonly and incorrectly labeled a comedy or parody act, these two routinely wring an uncanny amount of emotion out of winking wordplay and musical left-turns. They release songs through answering machines, they do puppet podcasts, they turn a 90’s one-hit wonder into an insane victory march. They teach your damn kids about science n shit. I love them and I have no business reviewing their music with any sense of objectivity or truth.
That said, their 20th album I Like Fun isn’t great. Or, in other terms, if my first They Might Be Giants album had been I Like Fun I probably would have said “heh, sure” and then went and listened to Ben Folds Five or something because in this hypothetical scenario something in the fabric of spacetime went wrong and I became the worst possible version of my goof-pop-loving self.
This is because I Like Fun lacks the careening flow and sense of oddball unity that all of TMBG’s best albums possess. Even beyond pillars like The Pink Album or Flood, recent highlights like Nanobots have paired the expected 3.5-minute wit bombs with weird interludes and strange diversions. This is a trick the band pull a lot, but they’re also extremely good at it. Their album Apollo 18 is notable for finishing with a dense chunk of sub-minute songs that make playing the album on shuffle a beautiful nightmare. Flood was a stylistic gumbo, The Pink Album was deeply, deeply strange about nostalgia in a way that resonated with me perfectly. Nanobots splintered into a multi-faceted look at parental anxiety vis-a-vis cold war espionage and death cults.
I Like Fun has none of this. It is that which TMBG usually do so well to avoid: a streamlined and spit-shined album of pop songs.
It is 15 kinda catchy, kinda clever songs collected together within a bad album cover.
It will probably be remembered as “the one they made that kinda seems to be about Trump sometimes,” which could have been exciting if it had avoided the trap that so many musicians seem to be falling into: confusing “mentioning personality quirks Trump has” with “criticizing Trump.” This is a bit presumptuous of me, of course. It doesn’t seem like They set out to make a political album. It seems like They made an album and it came out in 2018, and what else are you going to write about in this virginal, ominous year?
“The Bright Side” is the one I think will last. It is both the best Trump song and the best song on the album, and it kicks. It pairs a full can of hook with some trademark TMBG word fillet:
“Backwards ran your sentences
Until reeled the mind
Next what’s fear
And silence in
Wait just all we’ll then
Turning done you’re when”
20 albums in, one keeper and some skippers will have to do. The fact that They recorded this puppy in the same general area they recorded Flood in invites a lot of unpleasant comparisons, methinks. I Like Fun is no Flood. But it is They, and They will continue to do. They usually do better.