Do you remember when music’s primary function was to provide fun entertainment? It’s something that has been increasingly overlooked in recent years, and the majority of attempts to remind us of it have been dismissed as disposable pop confectionary that it was impossible to take seriously. After all, proper musical statements demand to be taken seriously and anything else isn’t worth bothering with.
Just imagine for a moment that this was actually the case, that the humourless killjoys had convinced us that all musical statements worthy of positive critical analysis had to be ‘serious’ and that anything that wasn’t ‘serious’ was ultimately worthless. It’d be a pretty dull world wouldn’t it?
Thanks heavens then for They Might Be Giants, a band centred around the Two Johns (Linnell and Flansburgh), who over the last third of a century have managed to carve out a consistently clever, entertaining and enjoyable musical career without resorting to self-important naval-gazing. That’s not to say that they haven’t taken their music seriously – they’re an exceptionally capable musical unit, it’s just that they’ve never lost sight of the fact that, at it’s very core, music is something that should be entertaining, and, if possible, fun.
Having resurrected their early 80s Dial-a-Song service and given it the appropriate modern upgrade (new material is available on the band’s website and YouTube feed every Tuesday), They Might Be Giants are celebrating its return with Glean, an album consisting of material that has already been featured on the re-launched service. There’s no underlying theme, or concept, or unifying mood to get bogged down with, it’s just a collection of songs. This simple but effective approach is utterly refreshing at a time when so many acts have spent the last few years tying themselves in knots trying to make every album a deep and meaningful musical statement. Sometimes an album just needs to be a collection of good songs, and the more that acts follow They Might Be Giants’ example and just release an album of good songs, then the better it will be for all of us.
They Might Be Giants’ strength has always been their ability to pen accessible, good natured tunes, and there’s no shortage of them on Glean. From the opening “Erase”, to the two-part “Musical Jail”, to the closing instrumental title track, there’s plenty of evidence to confirm that regardless of how prolific they have been, and continue to be, there is a significant amount of effort put into the band’s quality control. Indeed, I’d put songs like “Answer”, “Hate the Villanelle” and “All the Lazy Boyfriends” among the band’s very best work. For me though, two songs in particular stand out. “Madam, I Challenge You to a Duel”, is a nice twist on the otherwise tired ‘Woman done me wrong’ cliché and is home to the album’s most memorable melody. It is matched by “I’m a Coward”, a brilliantly honest song and a reminder that The Two Johns can be songwriters of unusual sensitivity.
From guitar pop, via synth-pop, to the odd nod to chamber-pop, there’s a whole host of styles on offer throughout Glean, though nothing sounds forced or laboured. They Might Be Giants have been doing what they do for 33 years now and they are absolute masters of the quirky, yet accessible, pop tune, all the while remaining on the fringes an ever-changing alternative rock scene, without ever allowing the shifting currents of fashion to dictate where their muse should head next. They Might Be Giants have been masters of their own destiny for so long that it’s baffling as to why they’re consistently overlooked for the greater respect that they are due, but the fact that they are only makes those of us that appreciate them cherish them even more.
Perhaps the secret to They Might Be Gaint’s success has been the fact that, throughout their career, they have been able differentiate being ‘fun’, with being ‘wacky’. Being ‘wacky’ tends to result in an album that is worth a chuckle the first three times you play it, but ultimately doesn’t stand up to repeated listens. They Might Be Giants have made a career out of being fun, but have managed to pull off the rare trick of balancing a blend of entertainment and humour, with material that rewards the listeners that invest time in it, and Glean is no different.
After all these years They Might Be Giants continue to defy genre labels, to the point where they are now simply their own genre. Underestimate them at your peril.