Physical media is dying. Well, if you would listen to received wisdom, that is. Yes, the skinny on the street is that nobody wants to have actual, tangible product anymore, apparently. Streaming and downloads are the way of the future, so you may as well get with the programme, gramps: no room now for all your CDs and vinyls. Might as well be shellac 78 RPMs and Edison wax cylinders, yeah?
Well, clearly the memo failed to reach They Might Be Giants, that irrepressible duo of Brooklynites who have been making music and ploughing their own rather distinctive furrow now since 1982. The pair of John Linnell and John Flansburgh just happened to be ahead of the curve in 1999 with their release Long Tall Weekend being the first album which was put out exclusively online by a major label group, beating everybody else to the punch.
Seeing as how they were pioneers in the field of web-hosted music, it seems apt that at a point when everyone else in the industry appears to be retreating to a world of bits and bytes, the Johns have flipped right back in the opposite direction to the rest of the crowd. TMBG’s twenty-third studio album is a genuine embarrassment of riches when it comes to the sheer breadth of different media in which the band have seen fit to make their new release available.
Yes, there is the now-obligatory digital download, alongside a CD version, as you might expect. Oh, an LP as well, you say? Sure, why not? After all, vinyl has gone through a reversal of fortune, and seen something of a revival of late. But, wait: if we just so happen to be going on about a once-maligned and technologically overtaken format like that, what about audio cassette? Well, if you still have a working player, you can rock out to this album on tape, if you so wish.
Surely all that would be more than enough? Well, perhaps for some artists, but you must be thinking of some other band – after all, who else but They Might Be Giants would happen to go to all the trouble of doing a limited run of only 250 copies on 8-Track? Perhaps the most unlikely of recent obscure and obsolete formats to pick, yet they just went ahead and did it, those crazy fools. There must still be some market out there for this most analog and unlikely medium, as every copy sold out months in advance.
However, John and John clearly seem to feel that it would be a half-measure to leave it there, so they have made sure this album – Book – lives up to its name, and put together a 144-page weighty tome, which has a CD copy of the album tucked niftily away in the inside front cover, along with giving you a downloadable version too. The book of Book just happens to be an art publication, with lyrics from this and other releases arranged typographically by the graphic designer Paul Sahre, with pictures by street photographer Brian Karlsson.
In the lead up to Book’s release, Linnell described the album in advance publicity material as “humorously germane to the catastrophe going on around us”, which would be rather a fair summation of our current situation even without COVID-19 being in the mix too. Book was mostly written and recorded in the midst of a pandemic, and it would be unusual in light of Linnell’s comment if TMBG had failed to let this influence their work in some way, even if in an indirect fashion.
They set their stall out early with opening track ‘Synopsis For Latecomers’, centring around someone imploring others not to panic while also recounting the most bizarre combination of catastrophic circumstances, accompanied all the while by a driving beat. The real strength of the Johns is being able to sweeten the pill of truly awful things and situations by sugar coating them with some incredibly catchy tunes, and this is a real banger to be sure.
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‘Moonbeam Rays’ – a song which predates the Book sessions – is a proper melodic and harmonic delight, counterpointing the real sweetness of the sound with the very plaintive ‘told you so’ message of the lyrics. ‘I Broke My Own Rule’ appears destined to become a favourite, from its opening distortions to the vocals, to the very upbeat and infectious tune, and the repetition in the lyrics. Yet another sure-to-become future classic is ‘Brontosaurus’, combining their playfulness in their use of witty rhyming with a darker underbelly.
Only They Might Be Giants could come up with a song about the most unlikely of subjects, in the form of ‘Lord Snowdon’, inspired by the life of Princess Margaret’s erstwhile husband, and taking its cues from military brass fanfares and turns of phrase. In case things were not quite offbeat enough yet, ‘If Day For Winnipeg’ kicks off with an opening akin to a broken music box, mixed in with an almost Radiophonic Workshop-like sound, with its basis being a real WWII event simulating a Nazi invasion in – oddly enough – Winnipeg.
On a more aurally – if not lyrically – conventional footing is ‘I Can’t Remember The Dream’, its first few strident notes just gleefully evoking The Troggs’ ‘Wild Thing’, and yet the actual words are really rather wistful and melancholic, with it vying strongly for the best track on the album. The bizarrely-titled ‘Drown The Clown’ deploys an electric organ to bring to mind the sound of the fairground, and the song’s rhythm – if not subject matter – seems more in keeping with their children’s albums.
‘Darling, The Dose’ is a rare instance of the words being much more enthralling than the music, which tends to weaken the track’s impact; any song which manages to work in mentions of Hamlet and Socrates is worthy of at least some attention. ‘I Lost Thursday’ speaks loudest to the current shared sense of timelessness, thanks to the pandemic having robbed us of any real grasp of chronology, due to such extended periods of inactivity, seeing minutes, hours, days and measurements of time beyond that bleeding into each other.
Another high point is ‘Part Of Me Wants To Believe You’, with its guitar hook defying you to take a dislike to it. TMBG tend to be known for their abstract approach, leaving the listener to arrive at their own interpretation of exactly what the song is about, and this is definitely no exception. ‘Super Cool’ is an inviting tale of someone who seems to use dance as a coping mechanism, and is so instantly relatable to anyone who has ever just lost themselves in the infectious beat on the dance floor.
In ‘Wait Actually Yeah No’, the Johns veer back towards Lear-esque nonsense verse, with a song which never actually gets properly started, throwing up images and locations, before it dips into more surreal imagery. ‘Quit The Circus’ comes over as being a bit of a weak link in the chain, and is not too easy a listen, as it feels frustratingly underdone, with its potential unfulfilled. Thankfully, Book ends on a high note with ‘Less Than One’, which drags you along with it on what verges on a raucous piano-driven musical rampage at times.
It would be tricky to keep going for approaching four decades now without having something to you, and while TMBG have never really broken out into the mainstream, something like Book makes you realise just what a blessing that in fact is. As with a highly individualistic act like Sparks, Johns Linnell and Flansburgh have been able to get on with their own thing, so you fear that conventional success might stifle or ruin them. Just leave the band to carry on carving out their own brilliant niche, and keep on doing what they do so well.
As with some of their other works, Book is a grower – it very much invites you to listen to it over and over again, in order for you to slowly appreciate the more unconventional pieces scattered in amongst the poppier or less contentious tracks. With it being a case of evolution not revolution, Book shows that while the Johns can still experiment right along with the best of them, They Might Be Giants also stay pleasingly close to their roots too.
Book is available in all its formats from TMBG’s online store.