With the Two Johns having forged an enduring career releasing a series of albums that appeal to socially awkward types who perhaps spend just a little bit too much time in their own heads, it’s a tiny regret of mine that I didn’t encounter the music of They Might Be Giants during my teenage years, when I was exactly that kid.
John Henry was released less than a month after my 16th birthday. Having just started college I was still trying to find my place in the world, and the vast sprawling John Henry would have been a suitably off kilter soundtrack to those months of coming to the realisation that I wouldn’t fit into the crowd in college any better than I had fit into the crowd in school. They Might Be Giants to appeal to the social misfit, as they have a tendency to defy convention. Sure alt-rock was cool in the 90s, but John Henry’s twist on alt-rock was both a dialling down of TMBG’s more quirky tendencies, while still being too weird for those whose interests didn’t extend much further than impressing their friends.
One of the biggest reasons for TMBG’s change of approach on John Henry was that it was the first time that The Two Johns were recording with a full band, instead of a small and constantly rotating line up of guest musicians. The upshot of this was that TMBG became a little more guitar orientated, and edged towards a more conventional alt-rock sound. Perhaps in an attempt to confirm that The Two Johns weren’t steering TMBG straight into the mainstream, John Henry’s opening tracking has an intro of John Linnell’s beloved wheezing accordion drawing the listener in to a song which is unmistakably TMBG, but just a bit more rock and roll. As both an album and gig opener, “Subliminal” remains something of a call to arms for TMBG fans, and for it to open an album that split opinions of the band’s fanbase as much John Henry did, is a shrewd bit of decision making on the part of The Two Johns.
While there is a more guitar orientated sound, space is still found for quirky tunes, with the best being “Meet James Ensor”, a song dedicated to the surrealist Belgian painter, which when you consider that the rest of American rock music was still wallowing in the depths of grunge, is a relatively left-field subject for an alternative rock band to write about. On the whole though, the guitars are cranked up on John Henry, particularly on “Snail Shell” and on album highlight “I Should be Allowed to Think”. The latter is a song that I would have immediately connected with if the 16 year old me had heard it in 1994, with a line like “I saw the worst bands of my generation, applied by magic marker to drywall” being irresistible to those of us that were resistant to the flood of overhyped Britpop bands we were constantly being bombarded with. The fact that the whole song is sung from the point of view of someone who probably isn’t the most reliable narrator probably wouldn’t have occurred to me until my mid 20s, but it would have been a mind blowing revelation when the penny finally dropped.
If John Henry has a weakness, it’s the fact that it’s lengthy run time and the diversity of its 20 tracks makes for a fragmented listen, with songs that might sound striking and memorable in isolation, losing their impact in the context of the album. This gives John Henry a unique issue in the fact that it is both overlong, yet selecting exactly which songs to remove from its run time is almost impossible. Perhaps releasing it as a pair of twin albums a few months apart might have been a solution, but as it is, John Henry, much like Physical Graffitti before it, and the later New Adventures in Hi Fi, is an album best enjoyed in sections rather than a single unified listening experience. Then again, the 16 year old me would have just been grateful for an album of great music that lasted nearly an hour just so he could drown out the sound of his fellow students, so what do I know?