They Might Be Giants: Can't Keep Johnny Down

The Leak, May 27, 2011

How many times has a band's 15th album been one of their best? The answer is four. And one of them is Join Us, the new album by They Might Be Giants. Join Us finds John Flansburgh and John Linnell on a creative roll, making music that positively swarms with energy, invention, and an impeccable grasp of the miraculous synergy of words and music.

To understand where this artistry comes from, it helps to remember They Might Be Giants' beginnings: as a key part of the early '80s explosion of visual art, music, and performance art that put New York's East Village on the cultural map. But while most cutting-edge rock at the time was bruising and nihilistic, the two Johns were making Dadaist, truly post-modern pop, forming a branch of underground music whose membership consisted entirely of themselves. "We're fully aware of the musical worlds both to the left of us and to the right of us -- we've heard avant garde music, we've heard popular music," says Flansburgh. "That's given us the notion that we can be as original as we can be and still make worthwhile songs."

In 1990, They Might Be Giants created some of their greatest work just as alternative rock was cresting -- and went platinum with the classic Flood. In the ensuing 20 years, they've become a beloved and fully diversified institution, conquering all media throughout the known universe, contributing to film and TV soundtracks, making hit DVDs, winning two Grammy awards, becoming Musical Ambassadors for International Space Year, appearing as cartoon characters, writing music for a robot ballet, topping the iTunes podcast charts, and being the subject of the acclaimed documentary Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns. And now the very aptly titled Join Us.

Join Us is a great leap forward for They Might Be Giants -- in part because in several ways, it's a "get back" record. On their previous album, 2007's The Else, the two Johns worked with producers the Dust Brothers (Beck, Beastie Boys); this time, they produced themselves, along with (very) long-time co-conspirator Pat Dillett, and took a new approach that was actually an old approach. If The Else was a self-consciously rock record, this one strives to be unself-conscious. "We got back to our beginners' mind about how ugly it could be, how strange it could be," says Flansburgh. "We're flying our freak flag super high on this one."

You can't step in the same river twice, though, and Join Us finds the two Johns 30 years wiser and more sophisticated than they were on their debut. The studio wizardry, while understated, is state-of-the-art and the performances draw on the ineffable chemistry of an ace live band -- drummer Marty Beller, guitarist Dan Miller, and bassist Danny Weinkauf -- that has remained virtually unchanged for a decade.

The simplicity of the arrangements also recalls their very earliest work. "Half the time, there are only three instruments playing at any given moment," Flansburgh points out. "And often we're both singing. We wanted to have music that we could sing together. That's all very much a return to our first couple of records."

And yet, Linnell adds, "There was a lot of discovery going on. It's experimental music. You're experimenting and then after a series of blind alleys you suddenly find something really interesting and everyone goes wow." Take, for instance, the intro to "The Lady and the Tiger." "We were plugging things into different effects -- and suddenly this whistling came out," Linnell says. "Nobody was expecting that, but immediately it seemed like a really important element in the recording. It's like it's trying to say something but you can't quite say what it is. A lot of the best things about music are like that." And more specifically, a lot of the best things about They Might Be Giants are like that.

If the band's lyrics seem enigmatic at first (and, usually, third or fourth) glance, it's because they're reaching for things that can only be expressed with a song. So don't look for much in the way of autobiography. "We don't write songs about our own largely dull lives," Linnell says. "We mostly rely on the time-tested gimmick of making shit up." Still, it's tempting to try to knit together the strands of this album: the double meaning of the title, the theme of defiance that runs through the songs, the cryptic self-references... it's as if there's a concept in there somewhere, waiting for some clever person to ferret out what it is.

The songs of Join Us are largely populated by sleazebags, oddballs, jerks, and people who are barely hanging on to their sanity (or not). Check out the uncomfortably unctuous guy in "You Probably Get That a Lot." (Don't know what a cephalophore is? Well, look it up! It's interesting!) Then there's the possibly schizophrenic narrator of "Cloisonné," and the character of "In Fact" who admits with some understatement, "I'm a mess." It's cathartic to sing along to these songs -- because it was even more cathartic to write them. "Mucking around in the mind of an unreliable narrator," says Flansburgh, "is about halfway between a pleasant short vacation and self-induced mental illness, and this album is about as chock-full of that as anything we've ever done."

The music is so catchy and beguiling that it's easy to miss the subtle and often complex darkness that lurks in many of these songs, something that's been true since the band's 1986 self-titled debut. So listen closely to the opener, "Can't Keep Johnny Down," or the existential despair of "The Lady and the Tiger," the actually kind of disturbing "Cloisonné," or the way the heraldic folk rock of "Old Pine Box" is actually about a broken-down screw-up. And then there's the heartbreaking closer "You Don't Like Me." "What might not be obvious from a distance in our music is how adult the themes are," says Flansburgh. "Adult lives are filled with disappointment and how to reconcile yourself to the life you ended up with."

It's not all ominous though -- there are songs that harbor truth and keen insight within a meticulously crafted pop song, like the sublime party jam "Celebration," the perfect pop of "Let Your Hair Hang Down," and the exuberant Who homage "Judy Is Your Vietnam." "Canajoharie" might be one of the band's greatest songs ever: Not only will it get you to heartily sing the name of an obscure town in upstate New York, but if you dig deeper, it's a powerful insight into the nature of nostalgia.

They Might Be Giants both recall and reinvent pop songwriting; they're in a league with modern masters like Elvis Costello, Sparks and XTC, echoes of whom you can hear in Join Us. As Flansburgh notes, "We're rock people -- we grew up in this hypnotizing moment when there was nothing more persuasive than popular song. It was so good, it stole the minds of an entire generation.

Join Us? By all means.