brent johnson digs up another lost treasure, this week from They Might Be Giants …
My friends and I have a running joke about They Might Be Giants: They’re the kind of band your girlfriend doesn’t like.
They look nerdy. They sound nerdy. They perform songs with sock puppets. They have lyrics that reference the 1964 World’s Fair.
But you shouldn’t overlook their music. It has the ability to be both melodic and hilarious at the same time. And just when you think all they do is flash their pop-culture knowledge and crack jokes, they’ll throw in a subtle bit of melancholia.
All of that is on display in the final two tracks of their masterpiece: 1988’s Lincoln.
TMBG started as a duo. John Linnell played accordion. John Flansburgh played guitar. In the background was a drum machine. It was the height of new wave — when wacky experimentation like that was championed on college radio.
Later on, they beefed up their sound with a full band and even found a decent amount of mainstream success. But their music was never more charming than on their first few records, when it was just the two Johns and only cult fans were watching. Despite the mininalistic approach, the music never sounded sparse or plastic. Their songs were rich. And smart.
Lincoln was their sophomore album. It was filled with tunes about aging Baby Boomers, a philandering Santa, and relationships so broken they need a crane to put them back together. The music jumps from punk-lite rock to finger-snapping jazz to a military march.
Then, there’s the one-two punch at the end. Flansburgh’s ‘Snowball In Hell’ is a touching ode to feeling lost in life — laced with a sweet accordion melody and a fantastic spoken word section taken from an old sales-training video. “If it wasn’t for disappointments,” Flansburgh sings, “I wouldn’t have any appointments.” Clever and crushing.
It’s followed by Linnell’s ‘Kiss Me, Son Of God,’ which on the surface sounds like a catchy little ditty from Tin Pan Alley’s heyday. Listen to the lyrics, though, and you’ll hear the first-person account of a murderous dictator gleefully boasting about how much he’s adored by the people he oppresses …
I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage
Called the blood of the exploited working class
But they’ve overcome their shyness
Now they’re calling me Your Highness
And a world screams, ‘Kiss me, Son of God’
These are just two of the many reasons to give TMBG a chance. Even if you don’t dig sock puppets.