Too much coverage of They Might Be Giants concentrates on their longevity, or their means of distribution, or how they have fans despite being "quirky," a vague descriptor that lazy critics take as all-in-one definitional: File Under Quirky.
"Quirky" is similar to the flat, diplomatic "different" some Midwestern relatives of mine apply to art that's not marketed to them. "Well," they'll say, "that's different"--meaning it's not worth thinking about any further. "Quirky" is cheapjack shorthand for a band that's not easy to classify. They craft records that are chipper but prickly; adventurous and forward-thinking yet steeped in 45 RPM formalism, in jingles and nursery rhymes and the three-minute glories of Revolver.
Theirs is rock and roll minus angst and sex or the sense that the rock-and-rollers aren't perfectly nice men you'd let babysit. They're weirdly generous and industrious, each album a pile of hooks and ideas, of squirrely curios and finely wrought showpieces. Almost 30 years after They Might Be Giants hit (with 19 songs), each new full-length feels like a new wing of some infinite junk shop/art gallery: Somehow, there are still more treasures to sort through.
You can't pack all the things they are into one album, even into ones as double-stuffed as 2013's Nanobots, with 25, or 1990's Flood, with 19, including the cover and the ditty that define them for many non-fans. I used to argue that the first three LPs make the strongest case for the band's gifts and the extent of its artistry.
Now, 25 years after Flood, I'm pleased and surprised to discover that their latest three could stand as the same. Their recent albums are their best, freshest, most surprising, and most representative since their first few, which seems like an impossibility in our peak-early popular culture. I mean, nobody expects that season 25 of The Simpsons is going to be the one where the show gets it together.
It helps that, unlike most aging pop musicians, the qualities distinguishing They Might Be Giants--melody, wit, formal inventiveness--aren't necessarily youthful. The new album, Glean, has a doozy called "Hate the Villanelle," named for the archaic poetic form its lyrics hold to. Those lyrics, of course, are about the difficulty of writing a villanelle. It could fit on any album in the band's catalog. This isn't the Stones trying to get it up every couple years to rewrite "Brown Sugar."
By design, Glean plays to their dedicated-craftsmen strengths. The band knocked out its fifteen tracks as one-offs for their Dial-A-Song service, each built to stand alone and hold your attention. But together they flow. They're sharp-elbowed, sometimes wistful, diverse without being showy, almost all memorably tuneful. Yes, they're more conventional in instrumentation than the band's first records, but there's a best-of ease to Glean that's rare in the TMBG discography--nothing to skip, here, no ditties or clever annoyances.
Here are two favorites, both representative of the overall quality.
First, the pulsing "All the Lazy Boyfriends," which is part OMD synthpop, part ballpark-organ rock, and part dancing-waters pizzicato cuteness. The two-hook chorus tells one Tweetable joke-truth ("All the lazy boyfriends are preparing to change") and reassures James Murphy, a decade too late, that he's not losing his edge.
And here's "Unpronounceable," a slick, stuttering new-wave beauty boasting one of those inimitable John Linnell melodies where every change seems inevitable and surprising at the same time. Try to shake that slippery, descending figure that wraps each chorus. As in many of the best TMBG compositions, everything here seems to spool out from that first line, of its own logic and momentum, as if once the song is set in motion it would just tumble along to its perfect conclusion even if the band took off for the day.
Linnell built a similar whirligig for 2013's excellent Nanobots, a darker, more daring, less shapely LP than Glean. This serves as the band's best album opener since "Ana Ng" on '88's Lincoln.
Another Nanobots highlight: "Tesla," a stirring ballad that should confirm once and for all that the band's educational songs ("James K. Polk"; "Meet James Ensor"; Linnell's House of Mayors solo work; all those kids albums) have always been earnest--even impassioned.
"Tesla" seems to come from the pen of John Flansburgh rather than Linnell. Its loose, gentle, strummy tone is increasingly common on TMBG's records and a welcome development. That said, Flansburgh has gotten plenty wiggy in recent years, pushing his songwriting into dazzling abstractions. Here, from 2011's Join Us, is "Cloisonné," a spree of free association and amusingly flatulent bass clarinet. The words just keep coming, like one of those endless hankies pulled from a magician's fist.
"Cloisonné" is as mad and singular as anything on those first three records. Join Us, a strong album but also the most inconsistent of these three late returns-to-form, is distinguished by the closest thing the band has ever done to a throwback. The cheerily splenetic "When Will You Die?" nicks a bridge from '92's "The Statue Got Me High." More importantly, though, it marks the first time that TMBG have, with a full band, persuasively re-created the crisp, propulsive, rinky-dink sound of their drum-machine days.
It's a stellar bookend to their once defining anthem, "Rhythm Section Want Ad," two well-adjusted dudes' song about not needing the kind of professional accompaniment that, three decades later, could equal "Rhythm Section Want Ad"--and still make it sound urgent and alive.
If you've ever loved any of those first three Giants' records, you'll find something to hold to in these new songs.