"I don't want the world, I just want your half"
One of the beauties of a compilation, is that if it is your first foray into that particular act’s work, you can leave it at that if you find that you don’t connect with their music in the way that you had hoped to. They can be the perfect ‘one and done’ solution for those acts where you just need the broad overview. Then there are those compilations that kick down the door to your appreciation of an act. An appreciation that can eventually lead to an obsession. When I first purchased A Users Guide to They Might be Giants, I thought it was the former of these, but my word, did it turn out to be the latter…
I must admit, prior to purchasing this well-thought-out compilation, the only song that I could name by They Might be Giants was the brilliantly catchy “Birdhouse In Your Soul”. After listening to this album consistently in the first few weeks that I owned it, I became pleasantly surprised quite how enamoured I had become with the majority of these songs and how efficiently they had wormed their way into my psyche, but was still certain that this was probably all the TMBG that I would ever need.
Of course, as is often the case with a blend of humour and music, there are things which can fall a little flat. I confess, it took me a few years to be charmed by “Spider” or “Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head”, but as A Users Guide to They Might be Giants is a compilation that you can’t help but return to repeatedly and with increasing frequency, even those numbers on it that seem disposable at first, eventually become not only familiar, but vital.
I must admit, I do have a soft spot for the fact-based songs on A Users Guide to They Might be Giants, with both “James K. Polk” and “Why Does The Sun Shine? Why Does The Sun Shine? (The Sun Is A Mass Of Incandescent Gas)” managing to lodge random information in my head without my permission, even though science has subsequently proved much of the latter song’s lyrics incorrect (though to their credit, TMBG would address this in the years following this compilation with the updated “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma)”. Add on top of this the accompanying CD booklet stuffed full of factoids, and the way the track listing is arranged (the songs steadily increase in run time, then steadily decrease…), and you’ve got a quirky and entertaining compilation that you find yourself returning to more often than you’d expect.
Not that the quirky sequencing gets in the way of the compilation’s dynamic flow. Indeed, so seemless are the transitions, that the only conclusion you can come to is that John Linnell and John Flansburgh planned them that way over the fifteen years this compilation spans. For all the smart arse track sequencing and humour, the strength of A Users Guide to They Might be Giants lays in its songs. Numbers like “Bangs”, “Ana Ng”, “Cyclops Rock”, “Meet James Ensor”, the aforementioned “Birdhouse of Your Soul” and (my personal favourite) “Dr Worm” aren’t just great amusing songs, they’re just great songs. And you know the brilliant thing? They have loads of great songs which aren’t on this compilation so you can fall for them all over again as you discover those hidden treasures.
Perhaps that is why I fell for the charms of They Might Be Giants. For all their quirky geek-posturing, for all their trailblazing when it came to the distribution of music in the modern era, at the end of the day, they write great songs, with catchy melodies, smart lyrics and memorable choruses, and never try to fool themselves or others with any notions of being cool. Perhaps that is why their fanbase remains so loyal – throughout their career TMBG have remained that rare thing in music – honest.
A Users Guide to They Might be Giants is a handy single disc introduction to one of the great acts of the last three plus decades. If it has a flaw, it is that its brilliance is not immediately obvious, and that it can take a while for the listener to realise that what they thought was a temporary diversion has escalated to a full blown obsession.