There's a universe just next door where everyone is a little bit smarter and kinder, and They Might Be Giants are as famous as The Beatles (in fact, in that universe, the band is known as They Are Giants). In that universe, John Flansburgh and John Linnell were born with the ability to see through space and time, or perhaps they used their piles of cash to invent machines to do it for them. The point is They looked into our world and saw that we were at a crossroads, teetering between a future where soulless corporations crush citizens at whim, and one where the creativity and imagination of the individual leads humanity out of darkness. Unwilling to sit idly by, They used Their superhuman smarts and Batman-like resources to create cybernetically enhanced copies of Themselves which They sent forth into this universe to show us all how to be better people. If you've taken anything from this review so far, it should be that They Might Be Giants are better than The Beatles, and that They are inter-dimensional bionic clones from the future...metaphorically speaking.
They Might Be Giants were genius songwriters from day one, but the significance of Their music has changed over the years, from purely experimental fun to social commentary that seems to have an overarching message. This development was especially apparent Thursday night at the Boulder Theater, where they played a set of their newer material -- including several songs from their new album, Join Us, and a song from their new-new album, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions -- followed by a set in which they played their early masterpiece, Flood, in its entirety, followed by two encores of highlights from their nearly thirty-year career. They played to a packed house, proving that their music is as timeless and beloved as you always suspected it was. The crowd consisted of fourteen-year-old kids, forty-year-old adults, and everyone in between. The only thing that everyone had in common was that they all seemed intelligent and nice. If only every event could be attended exclusively by TMBG fans, life would be a lot more fun.
The show began with "Subliminal" -- the mind-bending rocker from TMBG's full-band debut record, John Henry. Before John Henry, the band was just the two Johns writing and recording every song Themselves, with occasional help from friends. John Henry is also an important album in that it seems to be a concept piece about the individual's struggle with society and with his/her own mind -- themes which have run throughout the band's music at all stages of their songwriting progress. They followed "Subliminal" with two songs from Join Us. The first was "Celebration," an uplifting anthem which contains the lyrics: "Perpetrators of invisible crimes / the only magistrate sits in our minds"; these lines are emblematic of TMBG's recent outlook --Their mission to drive home the message that, although our world may seem increasingly bleak and corrupt, we will always have the power to look beyond the chaos and behave with a little gratitude and dignity. The song brings to mind lines from another song on Join Us, "Let Your Hair Hang Down": "Before we can get all the facts / we may be going to have to act"; again, the point is that we can wallow in anxiety and uncertainty all we want, but we will eventually have to choose how to live our lives.
"Celebration" was followed by the album's single, "Can't Keep Johnny Down" -- a gorgeous portrait of a misanthropic jerk: "Beneath my dignity to flip off the guy / who pulls up alongside to say my gas cap is unscrewed." This is the kind of curmudgeonly loner that has populated TMBG songs since the beginning, at once laughable and proud. Like so many of Linnell's protagonists, Johnny may be paranoid, self-involved, and personally unpleasant, but his statement "I'm pointing a finger at my own face / they can't know what's in here / and they can't keep Johnny down" has a certain grand metaphysical joy to it; after all, that's the one saving grace of being a human -- you'll always have your own thoughts and schemes, be they admirable or disgusting, and they'll always be yours alone. The individual is a simultaneously miserable and uniquely holy thing.
Next came one of Flansburgh's all-time best compositions, "Damn Good Times." Just try listening to this song without jumping up and down. His rapid-fire lyrics twisted and flowed around the audience's spot-on shouted chorus: "DAMN... GOOD TIMES!" Everyone in the theater knew most every song by heart because that's what TMBG fans do.
When the song was done, Flansburgh, always the consummate showman, said, "We know you have a choice of ossified alternative-rock bands, and we want to thank you for flying with us this evening." The crowd went wild and stayed wild through "Cloisonné," "The Mesopotamians," and an alphabetic recitation of the countries of the world which has been a stable of TMBG shows for years. At one point, Flansburgh took out a huge flashlight and divided the crowd into halves, instructing one side to raise their fists and shout "People!" and the other side to shout "Apes!" When the war was over and the People had won, he said, "Now it's time to hug each other and make up. Hopefully only deep-seated feelings of resentment will remain as you leave the theater tonight."
What can be said of the performance of Flood? It was glorious, as only Flood can be. The band played the album from back to front, starting with "Road Movie to Berlin." Someone in the crowd said to the person beside them, "Well, this is happening." It certainly was. Flansburgh announced, "In the early '90s, an invention was introduced to the world. It was called the longbox, and it was designed to decorate landfills. Inside, it contained a shiny, silvery disc which in turn contained all the songs of an album with no side break. From then on, albums just got worse and worse. Welcome to the Trojan horse of our Side Two! Come on inside, there's plenty of room!" Someone in the crowd shouted, "Play what you want!" Flansburgh shot back, "We can't play what we want because we've already sold tickets to this show!" Linnell chimed in, "We can't even say what we want!"
At the halfway point, the band took a "break" which consisted of the two Johns putting on a sock-puppet show on the huge screen behind them. The puppets were called the Avatars of They, and they sang the song "Spoiler Alert" with appropriate choreography.
Side One of Flood turned the energy up a notch, culminating in a sublime performance of "Birdhouse in Your Soul." Even Linnell himself couldn't help smiling as he sang the indelible lines: "There's a picture opposite me / of my primitive ancestry / who stood on rocky shores and kept the beaches shipwreck-free / Though I respect that a lot / I'd be fired if that were my job / after killing Jason off and countless screaming Argonauts / Bluebird of friendliness / like guardian angels it's / always near." What must it be like to be the man who wrote that profoundly, luminously brilliant song? Bathed in the spotlight, he seemed to also be filled with an inner light. Maybe it was the same light of inspiration that burst into his head when he first wrote that splendid anthem for a generation of lost
The encores included a lovely accordion-and-vocal rendition of "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?"; the brand-new song "Marty Beller Mask," which imagines that the band's drummer is actually Whitney Houston in disguise; the hilarious and mysterious polemic "When Will You Die?"; and the song "Plasma" from TMBG's kids' album, Here Comes Science. TMBG have always written songs for kids -- it's just that some of those kids are older than others. The audience appreciated "Plasma," which really is about the fourth physical state of matter, as much as any of the other songs. The show ended with the experimental snippet-collage, "Fingerprints."
At some point during the show, Linnell said, "Remember earlier when I said that thing about how we're not allowed to say what we want? What I was trying to say was that sometimes, when I say things, I'm not as interesting as I want to be." The crowd begged to differ. Everything They Might Be Giants does is interesting in one way or another. They're the most interesting and inspiring songwriting team that our country has ever produced. Their songs take your mind and turn it inside out, then ask you to sift through the refuse that falls out for tiny gleaming grains of hope and wonder. Listening to Their songs will make you a better songwriter, a more thoughtful person, and -- if you take the music's message to heart -- a person more likely to appreciate and value this troubled universe we inhabit. Thank you, inter-dimensional bionic future John clones. Thank you.