First there was the advance release of a four-track appetizer. Then there was the announcement of a contest for fans to create a video for one of its songs. And now, appetites having been duly whetted, the four-year wait is over and the new album from alternative rockers They Might Be Giants is here. Join Us adds fourteen more songs to the four already released, and everything presaged by those four is realized in the complete album. This is the Giants at their best: catchy hooks, absurdist lyrics bordering on the surreal, stylistically eclectic.
These are smart, suggestive songs that tease the imagination. They seem fraught with meaning, yet defy any kind of simple explanation. Like the best poetry they can’t be reduced to any sort of prosaic paraphrase. They are the only way to say what they say, or more accurately sing what they sing. To pick at them, to analyze, is to destroy them: as the poet says, “We murder to dissect.” Besides, it would take more guts than I have to even make the attempt. These are songs that make their impact emotionally. It is not necessary to understand every image; it is not necessary to work out logical connections. I’m not saying it can’t be done. I’m saying I can’t do it, and I’m saying, in the end, it doesn’t really matter anyway. If you take them on their own terms these are songs that will make you happy.
“Three Might Be Duende” is a perfect example. If you’re like me, the first thing you’ll have to do is run to Wikipedia to find out what “duende” means. Then there are other allusions that may or may not need research: necropolis, dystopia, Orpheum act, Faustian pact, espadrille; never mind such mystically allusive phrases as “sleep’s older brother” or the paradoxical “a smile that would frighten the blind.” It is easy to get lost in these images and rhymes, but it is like the joy of getting lost in a maze that has been purposely created to put you to the test. Besides, the more you listen, the more you hear.
This is true of nearly every song on Join Us. There is the pulsating counterpoint of “Spoiler Alert” and its truck with a mind of its own set against the distractions of the driver, the song seeming to be so much more than a caution against driving and texting. There is the funky homage to the old Frank Stockton story, The Lady and the Tiger, and its commentary on the necessity of choice. There is the sci/fi meditation on youth and age in “2082,” the metaphysical conceit of “Judy is Your Viet Nam,” and the rocking take-off on Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” in a kind of postmodern rewrite that even includes a pun on Hieronymus Bosch. The trick is that for all their intellectual games with language and esoteric allusions (I also had to look up cephalophore) they don’t come across as pretentious; their songs are filled with a kind of self effacing humor.
It is as though each song comes out of the mouth of a persona—so many voices, none their own. If there are disappointed lovers, they are characters created to speak their particular disappointment, not generic types. These are characters who use a vocabulary peculiar to them and their situation. The voice in “You Don’t Like Me” is nothing like the voice that speaks in “Never Knew Love.” The voice in “Canajoharie” is mellow and perhaps sentimental. The voice in “Dogwalker” is harsh and mechanical. Moreover the music is unique to the voice: sound echoes sense to echo another poet.
When it comes to musical style, the band is eclectic if you like what they do, all over the place if you don’t. One song will be a march; another has a hip-hop vibe. There are sounds that will remind old timers of their past, and there are some modernist allusions to classical forms. Some jazz riffs are scattered liberally throughout, and of course there is a good bit of swinging rock. This is no generic rock band, neither musically nor verbally. If each of its songs has a voice of its own, then this is a band with a voice of its own.
Whether they are singing about decapitated saints, decorative enamel, or an upstate New York idyll, They Might Be Giants are unique in their invention. Their songs are a breed all their own. You are not likely to hear anything like them from any other band, and if you ever do Flansburgh and Linnell will more than likely move on and find themselves a new voice.