As a reviewer, I've never felt dwarfed by a band whose album I was about to critique. From Springsteen to the Shins, I've always been able to take a step back and listen to the music without feeling an attachment to the artist. But when They Might Be Giants' new album, The Else, arrived in my mailbox and made its way to my car stereo, I suddenly became nervous. It's not that I have any great affinity for this band that has been making music since the year I was born – one of my closest friends is a rabid fan girl, but I only have an attachment to a mix CD of their work that she made me. It's just that their fan base is such a unique niche and their oeuvre is so cemented in the pop culture landscape after 25 years that it doesn't feel like what I'm about to say is even going to matter. But, because I'm something that resembles a professional, I'm going to say it anyway.
The Else isn't very good.
It starts out promising, with the catchy "I'm Impressed," an up-tempo, vaguely political song about following an unnamed primate of a leader. Following that is "Take Out the Trash," a grungy plea for a girl to dump her lazy lothario of a boyfriend. The song doesn't seem to plead for this woman to date either of the Johns that make up TMBG, but it has a winsome charm that's appealing.
You might imagine the song quality on The Else as a reverse bell curve, because after the first two tracks, the good quickly drops out. The band is known for its lyrical silliness, but their better songs have a good, discernable message beneath it all. From "Upside Down Frown" to "Careful What You Pack" and "Bee of the Bird of the Moth," though, the Giants come up remarkably small, their instrumentation clangy and lyrics too enigmatic to even be bothered with. It feels neither innovative nor very much fun. A few departures from the quality of the earlier cuts might be forgivable, but the weakness here is consecutive and takes up more than half the length of the album.