Say the Magic Words

9:30 Club Tumblr, August 1, 2015
by Ben Summers

SAY THE MAGIC WORDS: "But this railroad apartment / Was the perfect place / When she'd sit and hold me in her arms" in They Might Be Giants' "Lucky Ball and Chain"

The most accurate description of They Might Be Giants' (TMBG) musical and lyrical style is a sticker I saw stuck on a wall in Washington, DC, which featured a switchblade knife as the stick of a creamsicle. Just like that dangerous and delicious summertime treat, TMBG's melodies and hooks are an idyllic, pleasant, and silly shell that, with time and thought, melts away to reveal very adult, very dangerous, and very (forgive the pun) cutting ideas, lyrics, and themes. John and John are the Willy Wonkas of crafting sugary, sweet, melodic confections, yet the ingredients that they use most often are paranoia, death, depression, and disappointment. Hey, that could be a slogan: "They Might Be Giants: proudly offering syrupy sweets straight from the Stygian shore!"

They Might Be Giants' "Lucky Ball and Chain" is a great example of John and John's ability to craft a melody in such a way that the listener happily sings along to their miserable, sad sack monologue without realizing that the very upbeat country-pop song has a very downbeat subject. But who can blame them for singing along? If every rejection from a loved one were expressed in such a buoyant and infectious manner as this, people would flock to hear every drunk's sob story. While the character "rocks a barstool and drinks for two," a rubber bass line bounces and the mandolin cheerfully clatters like billiard balls. As he mulls over his bride walking away and (assumedly) weeps into his beer, he mentions that she must have left because she got sick of "all his rattling on." He says, "She threw away her baby-doll / I held on to my pride" and candidly admits that he was "young and foolish then, I feel old and foolish now." In a clever play on words and Flansburgh's deadpan delivery, the listener laughs and simultaneously cringes at such a succinct expression of crushing loss and personal disappointment. Then, to follow up with such a depressingly funny play on words, the character leans over and confides, "Confidentially, she never called me baby-doll. Confidentially, I never had much pride." TMBG reveal the dark center of their popsicle and the blade flashes before the listener. It's so shocking and dark that it becomes a twisted joke because of the devastating affect it has to negate all the hope and confidence of the last stanza. Better (or worse, I guess), when he confides the lies that he has told himself, he expresses them during the chorus and the exact moment that the listener wants to sing along. So, in a way, the Johns' force the listener to mock the shattered pride of the bar patron, bouncing with the bass line as they mock his destroyed pride, life, and self-confidence with a sing-a-long chorus.

The Johns are sick comedians with a disarmingly wholesome sheen to the presentation of their punch lines. They specialize in jokes delivered with fantastic timing and appeal to make the audience laugh, sing along, and smile while they proceed to enthusiastically present the destroyed lives, mental instabilities, and disappointments of the world and their characters. Yet, they have a positive outlook on even their most disheartening compositions. Or, at least a painted on smile and maybe sincere reassurances that it'll all get better. Maybe the positivity comes from their peppy and melodic instrumentation. Maybe it comes from Linnell's nasally voice and accordion. Maybe I just tell myself that things aren't as bad as the lyrics present and take reassurance in the equal amount of sweetness to wounding realism in TMBG's switchblade popsicle. Even "Lucky Ball and Chain" has a tiny taste of pleasantness in the lyrics near the end of the song as our bar patron briefly recalls, "We never had a home / But this railroad apartment / Was the perfect place / When she'd sit and hold me in her arms." The image of the bar patron wrapped up in his ex-lover's arms is so sweet and romantic that it dulls the cut of the ominous sound of a gunshot. Ah, well, I guess everyone has to get to the hard wood (or in this case, blade) middle of the popsicle sometime.