"I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage, Called the blood of the exploited working class."
They Might Be Giants debut album is one of those releases where the act seems to have emerged fully formed almost out of nowhere. I say almost, in reality the Two Johns had formed TMBG in 1982, having simultaneously moved to Brooklyn from Lincoln, Massachusetts without realising the other was moving too. A few years of playing distinctly un-rock and roll venues and a road accident later, and Johns Linnell and Flansburgh came up with the unique marketing ploy that would become TMBG’s fabled Dial-a-Song service. This provided them with a unique approach to songwriting and a healthy catalogue of material that meant, when their self-titled debut was released on Bar/None in 1986, it contained a selection of the very best material they had been working on over the last four years.
Released almost two years later, They Might be Giants’ sophomore album was titled after their hometown, and maintains the high quality of their debut, The Two Johns having been smart enough to hold back some of their best songs from their debut. Lessons learned from recording the debut enhanced its follow up, lending Lincoln an increased air of sophistication, which given that the bulk of the music was laid down by The Two Johns alone, with only a guest drummer appearing on one track, and an outside string arrangement being utilised, is no small achievement.
Thirty years after its release and still nothing quite sounds like Lincoln. It’s smart and refreshingly entertaining music recorded by a the sparsest of sparse line ups, which somehow manages to span tunes as diverse as “Ana Ng”, “Pencil Rain” and “They’ll Need a Crane”, yet still sound utterly unified and perfectly balanced. There’s an argument to be made that Lincoln is the definitive TMBG album, and when you hear songs like “Purple Toupee”, “Santa’s Beard” and “Shoehorn With Teeth”, it’s difficult not to agree. Even at 18 tracks, Lincoln does not outstay its welcome, and each track has its own unique feel and identity, while still being unmistakably TMBG. Sure, there’s the odd track which rockets by so quickly that you feel that it was a musical sketch rather than a fully formed song, but then you hear a song as beautifully arranged as “Snowball in Hell”, and you realise just how much The Two Johns were managing to achieve with such a minuscule budget. That’s why Dial-a-Song was such a genius idea, as from the very beginning of their career, They Might Be Giants understood that having certain restrictions imposed on you need not equate to artistic compromise, in fact, such limitations could often enhance the search for increasingly creative solutions. That is what Lincoln is, a monument to what creative minds can achieve regardless of how unfavourable the situation they find themselves in may seem.
Lincoln closes with “Kiss Me, Son of God”, just under two minutes of lyrical and musical brilliance, and a song which, 30 years after this venerable album’s release, is perhaps more chillingly relevant than ever. It might very well be TMBG’s crowning achievement, but that’s ignoring every other crowning achievement of their career. Let’s just say that Lincoln is just one peak in a particularly spectacular mountain chain of creativity.
If you’re new to They Might Be Giants, then Lincoln is an ideal place to start. If you’re a long term TMBG fan, then you already know that it is one of those albums whose reputation continues to grow with the passage of time.